Cold fusion and graduate school

My first mac.

My first mac.

My first computer was an Apple Macintosh SE. I bought it in 1987 to help with my school work. It had 2 3.5″ floppy disk drives, no hard disk, 1 MB of RAM, and a processor running at a whopping 8 MHz (yes, that is M: 8 MILLION per second!). It had a 9″ monochrome display, and the whole thing with a dot matrix printer (total necessity in those days, because there was no hard disk to easily save files). It cost roughly $2,500, about the same as most of the 10-20 computers I’ve owned since then. There was also no internet that I plugged into until my first year or so in grad school.

Since we were dirt poor, raising 2 kids, and struggling to get by on part time work in a luggage repair shop,  I felt very guilty about this computer indulgence!

My current iPad Air has 128 GB of storage and a processor with a clock speed that is listed at 1.3-1.4 GHz, 175 times faster than my old Mac SE. I just measured, and the screen on my iPad Air is actually a bit bigger than the old SE.

Front of iPad_Air case with basket stamping. All hand made.

Front of iPad_Air case with basket stamping. All hand made.

This weekend, I finally made a nice version of a case for an iPad Air. It was a bit more challenging than for the iPad II, because there is more screen and less other stuff for the case can hold onto. I’m happy with it and will soon start making a few more.

Back in 1988, I used my Mac SE to apply to graduate schools. After first planning on going to medical school, via an Art major, I finally was completely set on grad school in chemistry or related field. All the application materials were typed out and printed and then at fairly great expense sent to about 8 major universities. Unlike my experience transitioning from high school to college, where I didn’t get accepted into any of my choices, I got into all graduate schools…except one.

University of Washington, Washington State, University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Georgia Tech, and University of Utah had all accepted me and were even offering perks. By the time I was required to make a decision, I still had not heard anything from University of California-San Diego. I was a bit upset, because each application cost at least $50 and some time, so I sent UCSD a (paper) letter requesting that they refund my application fee. About a week later, I got my rejection letter from UCSD!

I had unofficially picked University of Wisconsin-Madison, because I loved the town, I loved the university when I visited, and I loved the lab that I was planning on joining. I ended up applying to the Biophysics program at UW, because that was a better fit for my interests.

cold_fusionWhile I was in Madison, and the day that I had decided that I would pick UW for grad school, cold fusion was announced at the University of Utah in my own chemistry department! It was on all of the national (and international) news shows. I heard about the wonders of cold fusion from my hotel room in Madison.

When I returned to Utah, I decided that I would visit Stanley Pons, who was the acting chairman of my department. Pons and his colleague, Martin Fleischmann, had made a “discovery” that would have revolutionized the world, had it been true. They claimed to have established a nuclear fusion reaction with a desktop apparatus with very inexpensive materials. People and news reports were talking about unlimited clean energy, filling car gas tanks up with heavy water. The entire planet could be supplied with abundant energy, it was claimed. 

It was hard to think about leaving University of Utah, just as it was to become rich beyond belief. The entire department was surrounded by media organizations for weeks, and it was somewhat intoxicating. Even my dad thought that I was crazy not to go to Utah and reap some of the benefits. I managed to get a 10 min meeting with Dr. Pons, and he had several calls from places like CNN while I was talking with him. I asked whether cold fusion would help my graduate education in biological chemistry. His answer was honest and helpful in that he didn’t promise anything much different than before cold fusion for my area of interest. To my dad’s (minor) disappointment I officially picked Wisconsin.

Cold fusion was a fiasco, and it did great damage to the University of Utah and probably chemistry and science in general for a few years. The president of University of Utah resigned after it was discovered that he made “anonymous” donations to a cold fusion research center established by the university. These donations were meant to entice other investors, and it was part of a long list of big mistakes that were made. Shortly after I got to Wisconsin, I read the book “Bad Science” by Gary Taubes. This is a very interesting book that is worth reading by any scientist, because it outlines how a series of small mistakes can really spin out of control when money and fame are in the mix.

2 responses

  1. Too bad you read the worst book on cold fusion…

    Charles Beaudette wrote a very documented book with many citations that are evidences, and which unlike the pathetic work of Huizenga, taubes and Morrison covers real experiments, and peer reviewed papers after 1989.
    All is based on people trusting opinion of outspoken uninformed of unethical people. You can check it yourself if you take few hours (that very few people did, even many Nobel).
    The book is there

    The description of the situation is so:
    “Unfortunately, physicists did not generally claim expertise in calorimetry, the measurement of calories of heat energy. Nor did they countenance clever chemists declaring hypotheses about nuclear physics. Their outspoken commentary largely ignored the heat measurements along with the offer of an hypothesis about unknown nuclear processes. They did not acquaint themselves with the laboratory procedures that produced anomalous heat data. These attitudes held firm throughout the first decade, causing a sustained controversy.

    The upshot of this conflict was that the scientific community failed to give anomalous heat the evaluation that was its due. Scientists of orthodox views, in the first six years of this episode, produced only four critical reviews of the two chemists’ calorimetry work. The first report came in 1989 (N. S. Lewis). It dismissed the Utah claim for anomalous power on grounds of faulty laboratory technique. A second review was produced in 1991 (W. N. Hansen) that strongly supported the claim. It was based on an independent analysis of cell data that was provided by the two chemists. An extensive review completed in 1992 (R. H. Wilson) was highly critical though not conclusive. But it did recognize the existence of anomalous power, which carried the implication that the Lewis dismissal was mistaken. A fourth review was produced in 1994 (D. R. O. Morrison) which was itself unsatisfactory. It was rebutted strongly to the point of dismissal and correctly in my view. No defense was offered against the rebuttal. During those first six years, the community of orthodox scientists produced no report of a flaw in the heat measurements that was subsequently sustained by other reports.

    The community of scientists at large never saw or knew about this minimalist critique of the claim. It was buried in the avalanche of skepticism that issued forth in the first three months. This skepticism was buttressed by the failure of the two chemists’ nuclear measurements, the lack of a theoretical understanding of how their claim could work, a mistaken concern with the number of failed experiments, a wholly unrealistic expectation of the time and resource the evaluation would need, and the substantial ad hominem attacks on them. However, their original claim of measurement of the anomalous power remained unscathed during all of this furor. A decade later, it was not generally realized that this claim remained essentially unevaluated by the scientific community. Confusion necessarily arose when the skeptics refused without argument to recognize the heat measurement and its corresponding hypothesis of a nuclear source. As a consequence, the story of the excess heat phenomenon has never been told.”

    the most shocking description of taubes and Morrison ethic is by Jed Rothwell, confirming Beaudette explanation at the end (explaining how undocumented were skeptic books) (page 4)

    “When a scientist writes about cold fusion, he should be held to more exacting standards. He must not dismiss or condemn cold fusion without reading the journal papers, and without presenting a credible, technical reason for doubting those papers. Society relies upon scientists, lawyers, ship captains, and other professionals to make unbiased, informed statements about their areas of expertise. It is unethical for a scientist to endorse or condemn a claim he has not carefully analyzed.

    In rare cases, a few scientists have been guilty of even more unethical behavior. McKubre and other prominent cold fusion scientists have given copies of journal papers to prominent critics, including Douglas Morrison, Robert Park, and John Huizenga. The papers directly contradict assertions made by the critics regarding matters of fact, not opinion, such as the amount of energy produced by cells in continuous bursts, the percent of input versus output, or the amount of chemical energy that a mass 0.5 grams of palladium deuteride will release as it degasses. Morrison often claims the degassing can account for the heat produced during an experiment performed by Fleischmann and Pons. Fleischmann gave him a paper showing conclusively that he is mistaken by a factor of 1,700. Morrison has been told about this mistake countless times, at conferences, in writing, and in a formal reply published in Physics Letters A. Yet he recently contacted a Nobel laureate and repeated the same misinformation. Fortunately, the Nobel scientist contacted me, and I was able to give him the correct numbers.

    Gary Taubes is another prominent critic. He made many misinformed claims in his book, on the radio, and in the mass media. He may not be qualified to read journal papers, because he does not appear to understand basic concepts such as electricity. He claims people sometimes measure electrolysis amperage alone and not voltage, and he thinks that regulated power supplies put out more electricity over the weekend because factories use less power. He thinks some researchers measure tritium once, after the experiment, without establishing a baseline or taking periodic samples. His book is filled with hundreds of similar errors. Perhaps the most mind-boggling one was his statement that a cell might have huge temperature gradients, “say fifty degrees hotter on one side than the other.”
    This is like asserting that you might stir a cup of coffee, drink from the right side and find it tepid, but when you turn the cup around and drink from the left side, it will be steaming hot.

    Taubes wrote his book using the same methods employed by sensation-mongering reporters in 1912: he pieced together second-hand rumors and made wild guesses about a subject he does not understand. He described his methods in the introduction, footnotes, and appendices. The book is based upon interviews and telephone conversations with 257 people, listed in an appendix. He spoke with seventeen people who actually performed experiments. Four of the seventeen are implacable enemies of cold fusion, including the authors of the three famous “negative” experiments. Most of the remaining 240 are critics like Frank Close and William Happer, who deplore cold fusion, and have staked their reputations on its demise. They have attacked it in the mass media, the ERAB report, and in books. Although more than a thousand peer-reviewed papers were published by the time Taubes wrote the book, he did not reference a single one of them in the footnotes. His descriptions of the experiments are wildly at variance with the facts, in major and minor details, so it seems unlikely that he read a paper. Describing an experiment is an exacting task, even when you understand electricity, you read the paper, visit the lab, and ask the experimenter to review your description. When a scientifically illiterate person tries to imagine how an experiment works based on allegations made by people who despise the research, indescribable confusion and distortion result.

    Taubes’ book was recommended in enthusiastic blurbs by four Nobel laureates and the chairman of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. These people could not have actually read the book, or if they did, their judgment was skewed by animosity. This shows how easy it is to spread false information, and how careless distinguished scientists can be. It takes only a small group of people to poison the well of public opinion. There may be a few other active critics in the mass media, but most attacks originate from these four: Morrison, Park, Huizenga, and Taubes. They are not famous or influential. They succeed because many scientists bear a grudge against cold fusion, and are willing to believe the worst about it. When Robert Park attacked it with inflammatory ad hominem rhetoric, a room packed with hundreds of members of the American Physical Society (APS) applauded and cheered.

    Mistakes Caused by Culture, Denial, and Psychology One way to learn how to separate fact from fiction is to study the ways mistakes and disagreements arose in the first place, and why they remain in the historical record, seemingly impervious to correction. ”

    It would be honorable to correct those errors, or at least not to repeat without evidence accusations.
    If you have a paper that challenge F&P,McKubre,Oriani,Miles/Bush calorimetry that have not been refuted by calorimetricians or chemist, tell me.

    If you don’t know that names, maybe best is to stay away from that domain which is by the way getting industrial

    you can also read the book of Mats Lewan a journalist/engineer
    on E-cat
    on the most promising industrial development.

    I would have much more information to relay, but nearly few hope to convince.

    good reading ,
    I am sure you will not follow Roland Benabou model of groupthink by refusing to see in the telescope.

    hope this helps.

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