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Perpetual Motion It Isn't : TOO HOT TO HANDLE: The Race for Cold Fusion, By Frank Close (Princeton University Press: $24.95; 366 pp.)

May 12, 1991|Stephen S. Hall | Hall is the author of "Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene" (Tempus)

From the very beginning, cold fusion sounded too good to be true. In March of 1989, two chemists at the University of Utah announced that they had achieved the energy equivalent of alchemy. By running a current through a beaker full of what is known as heavy water, they claimed to have created a physical cell that generated more energy than it consumed.

The announcement was hailed as the discovery of the century, as a triumph of "small science" over big. It promised a cheap and clean source for global energy needs, relief for a polluted planet--even respite from the geopolitical chore of liberating dubious democracies to assure supplies of foreign oil. Reporters chased the scientists as if they were rock stars; patents were hastily filed, and the state of Utah promptly ponied up $4.5 million toward a National Cold Fusion Institute. All they had to do was to confirm the initial claims.

The unraveling of those claims forms the heart of "Too Hot to Handle" by Frank Close, a respected theoretical physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the author of several books about physics. It is a fascinating tale of scientific misadventure that produced what the author calls "the most bizarre 500 days in the history of modern science." In Close's telling, cold fusion was indeed too good to be true.

The allure of fusion, hot or cold, has a long and distinguished history, attracting such certified intellects as Edward Teller and Andrei Sakharov. The idea, simply put, is to force two atoms together, usually hydrogen's "heavy" cousin deuterium, so that the two atomic nuclei fuse. In the process, energy in the form of heat is generated.

Uncontrolled fusion results in a thermonuclear explosion, but if the reaction can be controlled, it promises a sustained source of energy. In one form or another, fusion accounts for the heat of the sun, the destructiveness of nuclear arsenals and multimillion-dollar budgets given to laboratories trying to achieve "hot fusion," in which temperatures as high as 250 million degrees are created in the laboratory to force those reluctant atoms to fuse. Word that fusion could occur at room temperature sparked justifiable frenzy throughout the world.

At the center of the drama were two chemists, Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England (who consented to an interview with Close) and B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah (who apparently did not). Fleischmann comes across as a witty and erudite scientist of spotless reputation, a member of Britain's Royal Society. Pons took a rather more unorthodox route to his 15 minutes of academic fame. Born in North Carolina, he attended graduate school in chemistry at the University of Michigan, but dropped out before completing his Ph.D., and then worked as the manager of a family restaurant for about seven years before returning to academia, where he ultimately became chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Utah.

Both Pons and Fleischmann enjoyed reputations as careful and creative scientists, so when they announced that they had achieved cold fusion, most members of the scientific community presumed they had done their homework and performed the requisite checks. The record unearthed by Close shows they had not.

They had dabbled in cold-fusion experiments without conspicuous success until 1988, when they began to detect a curious excess of heat. At roughly the same time, Pons and Fleischmann became aware that Steven Jones, a physicist at Brigham Young University, had discovered very slight nuclear evidence of cold fusion.

In the best tradition of scientific openness, Jones offered to share information with his Utah colleagues. Pons and Fleischman, however, accused him of stealing their idea, and then University of Utah officials elbowed in, urging Jones to cancel an invited talk about his cold-fusion results and brokering an awkward truce in which both teams of scientists would meet at the Federal Express office in Salt Lake City on March 24, 1989, and send their manuscripts together to the journal Nature. Without warning Jones ahead of time, the University of Utah then pressured Pons and Fleischmann to hold a press conference on March 23 to obtain patent priority.

With the press conference, the work hit the global airwaves before it had received the most cursory vetting. As "Too Hot to Handle" makes clear, the scientific press conference can also become a form of scientific self-entrapment: Pons and Fleischmann became enamored of the fame, wedded to a shaky thesis, blind to weaknesses in their argument. The ensuing furor brought discredit upon the university, the researchers, cold fusion and science in general.

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