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A Cold Shoulder to Science : BAD SCIENCE: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion, By Gary Taubes Random House; $25; 503 pp.)

August 22, 1993|James Gleick | Gleick, the author of "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman," is working on a book about the telephone

"Bad Science" is right. Bad journalism, too.

For many scientists and non-scientists alike, the short, silly history of cold fusion began with a dramatic headline on Page 1 of the Wall Street Journal in March, 1989: "Taming H-Bombs? Two Scientists Claim Breakthrough in Quest for Fusion Energy. If Verified, Utah Experiment Promises to Point the Way to a Vast Source of Power." (The Los Angeles Times, too, presented the Utah claim on the front page; the New York Times and the Washington Post displayed more discretion.)

Taming H-bombs indeed. Fusion is the nuclear process that powers the sun, sustainable only at temperatures measured in the millions of degrees. Nuclear physicists have pursued fusion-generated electricity as a quixotic dream for nearly a half-century in giant international laboratories at a cost of billions of dollars--$8 billion in the United States alone. Despite these vast expenditures, practical nuclear fusion has always remained somewhere just over the horizon. Super-hot fusion reactions can be set off for short instants, but the state of the art is such that they tend to use more power than they generate, by a considerable margin.

So a healthy bit of skepticism might have seemed appropriate when a pair of chemists claimed to have sidestepped conventional physics and created a hitherto unknown form of nuclear fusion--"cold," room-temperature fusion--in a glass beaker at the University of Utah. They used, as the Wall Street Journal said, "no more equipment than might be used in a freshman chemistry class."

Skepticism was in short supply in Utah. On the contrary: A university official told reporters that cold fusion "ranks right up there with fire, with cultivation of plants and with electricity." Hundreds of scientists began a fevered scramble to recreate the results--some in a responsible and pragmatic spirit, but many others in a search for glory that led to pregnant-sounding reports of "Results Hard to Explain in Conventional Terms."

These were the essential meat of a long series of articles in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere: Scientists did not quite understand what was happening in their jury-rigged beakers, so reporters used words such as inexplicable and mysterious and fascinating. In a patriotic spirit, the Utah state legislature rushed to appropriate millions of dollars for more research (and more patent lawyers).

As a social phenomenon--a "collective derangement of minds," in Gary Taubes' apt phrase--cold fusion sputters on to this day. A few hopeful fringe researchers continue to produce mysterious sounding and non-reproducible results. The current issue of "Popular Science" features on its cover an all-too-familiar example of the "If True" style of journalism typical of the affair, by the same Wall Street Journal reporter whose rose-colored coverage played such a central role in cold fusion's start. "Fact or Fantasy: Cheap, Abundant, Non-Polluting Energy Source? Or Pseudoscience?" It may as well be the National Enquirer on abductions by aliens. "The Debate Refuses to Die."

In "Bad Science," Taubes has written a detailed, wry and definitive history of one of our century's grandest scientific hoaxes--perhaps the grandest since the discovery of the mythical "Piltdown Man" in 1912. For a hoax is what cold fusion was. Taubes documents that beyond reasonable doubt: the scandalously incomplete experiments, the tactical evasions by researchers confronted with legitimate questions, the suspiciously, impossibly clean data diagrams.

Taubes avoids the word, however, just as he is careful with what one university official calls the "F-word": fraud. The Utah chemists, Stan Pons and Martin Fleischmann, refused to respond to Taubes' questions and their psychology remains a mystery. It is hard to imagine that they deliberately set out to deceive the scientific community. (Both men have left the United States; Pons reportedly continues to pursue cold fusion on the French Riviera with the help of a Japanese corporate sponsor.)

That they did deceive and mislead seems undeniable. Taubes in the end sides with a chemist who says the scientists' behavior was not rational enough to be fraud: "They were caught up in it and they just couldn't analyze what was going on."

The entire corpus of scientific knowledge produced by the cold fusion affair can be summed up in a few words: "If you put electrodes of exotic metals like palladium and platinum in a jar, pour in water laced with such other substances as lithium, and run a strong electric current through, complicated chemical reactions can occur. The water molecules' hydrogen and oxygen atoms can be pulled apart and can recombine, even explosively. If you are careless, the bookkeeping of energy flowing into and out of the jar can be hard to manage accurately."

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