Monday, 12 July 1999

John Huizenga: Cold Fusion (1992)

Edition:  Oxford University Press, 1993
Review number: 287

It is now almost exactly ten years since the press conference was held which launched cold fusion before the world, and it seems now an almost forgotten chapter in the history of science in the twentieth century. At the time, however, the amazing promise offered by cold fusion should the supporters' claims prove true, and the generally unsubstantiated and (to many experts) ludicrous nature of the claims led to angry and passionate exchanges. Huizenga, as chair of the committee appointed by the US Department of Energy to investigate the claims of cold fusion, is well placed to offer an account of the whole affair (though his sceptical  attitude - to my mind the proper one - led to accusations of bias and prejudice).

To quickly summarise the history of cold fusion, in 1989 two chemists from the University of Utah held a press conference to announce the discovery of the century: when electrolysing heavy water, they seemed to be getting out more energy than they were putting in. They ascribed this to fusion of the deuterium which takes the place of normal hydrogen in heavy water. Scientists have been working on deuterium fusion for years, but the possibility that it could happen at room temperature seemed so remote that their work had been concentrated on super-heated deuterium plasmas, kept under pressure by extremely intense magnetic fields (hence the name cold fusion for the new discovery).

Critics picked up several things which acted as danger signals almost instantly. The speciality of Pons and Fleishmann was electrochemistry, massively removed from nuclear physics. They had carried out their experiments and come to their conclusions in a way that didn't satisfy the nuclear physics community that the conclusions were correct. The way that fusion works is that it produces larger atoms than the ones started with along with the energy, and the two of them had not systematically looked for evidence that these atoms had been produced with good quality detectors. By the standard mechanisms of nuclear fusion, to produce the amount of excess heat they claimed to have done, Pons and Fleishmann would have received lethal doses of radiation. In addition, they had carried out the heat measurements in a way which was known to be susceptible to systematic errors.

Apart from these scientific warning signs, many of their colleagues were extremely suspicious of the way in which the results obtained by Pons and Fleishmann were communicated to the scientific community. They had worked in unusual secrecy for a number of years, not even involving the nuclear physics department at Utah. Then their results were not revealed to the world through a peer-reviewed journal article, as is the norm, so that it didn't form part of the academic system designed to promote the excellence of science by allowing qualified experts to check your account of your work before publication. The details given at the press conference were vague, and that didn't make it easy for others to check the results, by reproducing and trying to understand their work. When their academic paper came out, it had been allowed to bypass the peer review procedure, and not only was it also vague, but its account contradicted what had been said at the press conference. It contained so many mistakes that the errata published in the next issue of the journal where it appeared amounted to a quarter of the length of the original article (and even included the name of another author who had been omitted from the first publication).

The politics of the announcement were also mishandled. The University of Utah insisted that crucial details were kept secret, so as not to prejudice a future patent application. Dissatisfaction among the scientific community was met with accusations that the science establishment was biased towards the prestigious establishments in the eastern US which received the largest government grants toward research projects. Applications were made to both Federal and Utah State government bodies for funds outside of the normal mechanism for grant making (which involves peer review of proposals).

So why did cold fusion polarise the scientific community, given the many flaws listed above (and more became apparent as time went by)? The main reason seems to be that its proponents were blinded by the potential benefits should the claims have proven to be true. Basically, these included an end to the energy crisis, with virtually inexhaustible power available for a tiny cost. People wanted to believe in it, and so tended to interpret experimental results in a way that bolstered the possibility of cold fusion.

As chairman of the DOE committee, whose unfavourable report was instrumental in the Federal decision not to formally support cold fusion research, John Huizenga was strongly attacked by the supporters of cold fusion. He could hardly be expected to be positive about it, but he very carefully refrains in this book from going beyond purely scientific criticism of the results a nd methods of those involved. He does occasionally resort to rather inflammatory language, as for example when he describes an attempt to explain cold fusion as a 'non-theory' resting on a series of 'miracles'. (In fact, what he means by the word miracle, distinctly pejorative in a scientific context, is an unsubstantiated hypothesis contrary to generally accepted scientific ideas, such as an altered probability of a particular type of deuterium fusion.)

Bias is possibly present, though I think this is as a result of the treatment Huizenga received, but not prejudice. The book is a useful summary of the history of cold fusion and an examination of its scientific credentials. What grated with me was one particular aspect of the writing style - it is very repetitive. Huizenga repeats the same criticisms of cold fusion experiments in chapter after chapter, to the point that they read like a series of more or less independent articles on the subject. I suspect that this is partly because he had made these criticisms over and over again to cold fusion supporters without them being answered, preferring to launch personal attacks upon him and other sceptical scientists instead.

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