Pathological science in Goodstein’s “On Fact and Fraud”

Cold Fusion is a pariah scientific field founded by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. Cold fusion papers were almost never published in refereed scientific journals, with the result that those articles didn’t receive the normal critical scrutiny that science requires. Although there is no evidence of scientific fraud in the cold fusion story, it does come rather close to what Irving Langmuir defined as “pathological science.” The person involved always thinks he or she is doing the right thing, but is led into folly by self-delusion.” Extract from “The Cold Fusion Chronicles,” Chapter 7 of the book by David Goodstein, “On Fact and Fraud. Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science,” Princeton University Press, 2010. Let us summarize the chapter.

“On March 23, 1989, Pons and Fleischmann, fearing they were about to be scooped by a competitor named Steven Jones from nearby Brigham Young University, and with the encouragement of their own administration at the University of Utah, held a press conference. There they announced that, incredible as it sounded, they had induced controlled nuclear fusion reactions on a bench in their laboratory. If true, their discovery undeniably ranked as one of the chief scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century. Pons and Fleischmann claimed to have discovered an inexpensive, essentially low-tech way to make fusion occur. Their method did not require teams of scientists, plasma technology, and mega-levels of research funding. If their claims were to be believed, the world’s energy problems were at an end, to say nothing of the fiscal difficulties of the University of Utah.”

“Mere chemists, spending money out of their own pockets, had apparently succeeded where arrogant physicists, spending hundreds of millions in public funds, had conspicuously failed. The chemists had outshone the physicists, small science had beaten big science, sheer ingenuity had triumphed over brute force, and humble professors from Utah had won out over the scientific elite of America. Somehow lost in this modern-day David and Goliath fable were the facts that two of the Utah professors, Pons and Jones, were bitter rivals; Jones was a physicist, not a chemist; and Pons’ partner, Fleischmann, was not only an Englishman but a fellow of Britain’s Royal Society, one of the world’s oldest and most illustrious scientific bodies.”

“What followed the chemists’ announcement was a kind of feeding frenzy—science by press conference and e-mail, confirmations and disconfirmations, claims and retractions, ugly charges and obfuscation. In short, it was science gone berserk. Then, as abruptly as the tempest blew in, it was gone. For all practical purposes, it ended a mere five weeks after it began, on May 1, 1989, at a dramatic session of the American Physical Society in Baltimore. Although there were numerous presentations at this session, two in particular stood out. Three scientists from Caltech—physicists Steven Koonin and Charles Barnes in one presentation and chemist Nathan Lewis in the other— executed a perfect slam-dunk that cast cold fusion right out of the arena of mainstream science. In particular, Lewis repeated the experiment and it didn’t work for him, and Koonin eloquently described the nuclear theory that made the Pons and Fleischmann result seem impossible.”

“In Italy the story had unfolded along remarkably similar lines. Professor Francesco (Franco) Scaramuzzi was at the time the head of a small low-temperature physics research group at a national laboratory in Frascati, a suburb of Rome, funded by ENEA—the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and the Environment. On April 1989 announced his discovery of a new kind of cold fusion. Within days, the Italian parliament had approved financing for ENEA and Franco was promoted. The story made headline news all over Italy. Not only had cold fusion been reproduced in Italy, the Italian version was of an entirely new kind: Fusione fredda, or cold fusion Italian Style, was “dry fusion,” produced without electrolysis. True, Franco was also a physicist, not a chemist, but his specialty was not the “big science” research for which the Frascati lab was famous but instead small, clever, low-budget science.”

“Science in the twentieth century has been much influenced by the falsifiability precepts of the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, which hold that while a scientific idea can never be conclusively proven true, a single contrary experiment may suffice to prove a theory forever false. What distinguished the proponents of cold fusion in this regard was the readiness with which they embraced precisely the opposite view when many experiments, including their own, failed to yield the desired results. These experiments  were irrelevant, they argued, incompetently done, or lacking some crucial (perhaps unknown) ingredient needed to make the thing work. Only the positive results—the appearance of excess heat or a few neutrons—were to be credited, and these proved that the phenomenon was real. This anti-Popperian flavor of cold fusion played no small role in its downfall, since seasoned experimentalists like Caltech’s Nathan Lewis and Charles Barnes refused to believe what they couldn’t reproduce in their own laboratories.”

“The fusion of two deuterium nuclei is reasonably rare event because deuterium’s positively charged nuclei, like two north (or south) magnetic poles, repel each other. However, if the nuclei get close enough together, they will nevertheless fuse because of what is called the strong nuclear force. The laws of quantum mechanics, which govern the behavior of matter at the atomic scale, also allow deuterium nuclei to fuse by accident every so often, even if they are not initially close together—but the probability of that happening is very small. At the inter-nuclear spacing in the deuterium molecule, the probability is too small by forty or fifty orders of magnitude., that it is too small beyond discussion, beyond imagination, almost beyond meaning. On the other hand, that probability is insanely sensitive to how far apart the nuclei are to begin with. To increase the probability of fusion by the requisite forty or fifty orders of magnitude requires getting the nuclei closer together by just one order of magnitude. While this may sound like a trivial challenge compared to bridging forty to fifty orders of magnitude, it is in fact extremely difficult to pull off. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on hot fusion research with the goal of producing exactly that elusive result, and it is difficult to imagine how—given the well-known forces involved—it could be accomplished on a tabletop. Nevertheless, once we have been anesthetized by talking about forty or fifty orders of magnitude, the idea that a one-order-of-magnitude gap might somehow be overcome is not so hard to swallow.”

“After their experiment, Pons and Fleischmann have both be dead. The amount of heat claimed by Pons and Fleischmann, the associated flux of neutrons would have been more than enough to send them both to the happy hunting grounds. Let us catalog three possible outcomes of fusion: one that emits neutrons (a); one that leaves tritium behind (b); and the rare event where the helium-4 stays intact (c). In conventional nuclear physics, fusion results about half the time in a, half the time in b, and one millionth of the time in c. To account for the observations reported, with some consistency, by various cold fusion researchers, fusion inside a metal would nearly always result in reaction c (without, however, emitting a gamma ray). One in every 100,000 or so reactions would result in b, and the probability of a reaction a would be an additional 100,000 times smaller. These are the conditions needed to explain why cold fusion cells could allegedly generate enough energy to light a light bulb for periods of days or months, while yielding only tiny amounts of tritium, and barely detectable traces of neutrons that fell far short of killing Pons and Fleischmann.”

“Caltech’s Nate Lewis had used with telling effect is that local hot spots often develop in electrolysis experiments. By placing their thermometer at an accidental hot spot, and by neglecting the elementary precaution of stirring the water in their cells, Pons and Fleischmann could easily have fooled themselves into thinking there was excess heat where none really existed. Another objection that had been raised was that any actual heat generated in these experiments was the result of some uninteresting chemical process rather than nuclear fusion. Chemical processes that generate heat are not uncommon in electrolysis experiments. As we have seen, the strongest argument for nuclear fusion (given the near absence of the neutrons and tritium) was that the reported amount of observed heat was far too large to be due to any chemical process. That would be true, the critics replied, if cold fusion cells didn’t have long dormant periods during which energy was being generated at the same time as the heat. However, all of this energy was being pumped in, and no excess heat was being produced. This suggested that the heat finally liberated in the “cold fusion” episodes might just have been chemical energy stored up during the dormant periods. In other words, far from producing more energy than was being put into them, the cells were just storing up energy and releasing it in concentrated bursts.”

“The cold fusion saga offers a classic case study of how scientists, bent as they are on deepening and enlarging their understanding of nature, may convince themselves that they are in the possession of knowledge that does not in fact exist. This is not scientific misconduct. Many mistakes were made on both sides of the great divide in the course of the cold fusion story, but they were honest errors, not examples of fraud.”

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