The cold truth about gullibility fused to silly science

August 08, 1993|By Jon Van | Jon Van,Chicago Tribune




Gary Taubes

Random House

503 pages, $25

Whether it's the notion that apricot pit grindings can cure cancer or that unlimited energy can be found in a jar of liquid, something within the human soul seems to yearn to believe ridiculous propositions.

Science may enjoy a popular image as a rational, calculating affair practiced by people of superior intellect and cool demeanor. But inevitably, human passions, ego and jealousies affect researchers as much as anyone else.

Sometimes, the clash between the image of scientists as pure truth-seekers and their reality as regular human beings leads to monumental silliness. The cold-fusion fiasco that grabbed public attention for a few months in the spring of 1989 constitutes a textbook case in the folly of abandoning skepticism when people make outrageous claims, no matter what their standing or reputation.

Gary Taubes, who has training as both a scientist and a journalist, has written a marvelous chronicle of the cold-fusion affair. Aided by hindsight and more than 260 interviews, Mr. Taubes provides a relatively clear picture of what at the time seemed quite confusing events.

His account shows that B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann hadn't done sufficient work to write a single credible paper on their research when they announced at a University of Utah news conference in March 1989 that they had discovered room-temperature fusion, a chemical claim akin to a perpetual

motion machine.

The pair made their announcement because they feared another scientist, Steven Jones at Brigham Young University, was about to publish a paper on his cold-fusion work that would bring him glory and riches for discovering limitless energy.

In truth, Dr. Jones' findings were marginal at best, and they held no promise of commercial application. But he submitted them for publication because his research funding sources were drying up, and he needed to show some achievement in a bid to secure more funds.

The lure of cold fusion was so great that even those who put their own reputations and that of their university in jeopardy couldn't stop themselves or take sound advice when given.

University of Utah President Chase Peterson called Hans Bethe, a towering figure in nuclear physics, to tell him that Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischmann claimed to have seen electrochemically induced cold fusion. Dr. Bethe told Dr. Peterson that sounded most unlikely.

Dr. Peterson also said his people expected Brigham Young physicists to publish their findings and eclipse Utah's work.

"Let BYU publish alone," Dr.Bethe said. "Let them make fools of themselves."

Dr. Peterson ignored his advice. The news conference proceeded.

Oddly, segments of the press swallowed the Pons-Fleischmann claims with remarkable gullibility. Perhaps because of a feeling that they were slow to recognize the newsworthiness of high-temperature superconductors discovered a year earlier, reporters at the Wall Street Journal trumpeted the Pons-Fleischmann claims as if they were certainly true.

The fact was that Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischmann had never even conducted controlled studies to assure that their findings were valid, Mr. Taubes writes. They had great difficulty reproducing .. their own results, and they tended to respond to critics not with data supporting their wild claims but with letters from lawyers threatening court action.

Perhaps because of credibility bestowed by popular-press accounts, numerous scientists tried to replicate the Utah claims and couldn't. However, a few did get interesting results, mostly because of sloppy lab work, taken by Utah as confirmation of cold fusion.

Mr. Taubes' well-researched account of the entire fiasco makes for fascinating reading and provides many insights into how the scientific process really works. The key thing missing here is a more complete view of how Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischmann deluded themselves into believing their own claims.

Neither consented to interviews with Mr. Taubes and, apparently, continue to believe in cold fusion.

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