Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraudby Robert L. Park
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In a time of dazzling scientific progress, how can we separate genuine breakthroughs from the noisy gaggle of false claims? From Deepak Chopra's "quantum alternative to growing old" to unwarranted hype surrounding the International Space Station, Robert Park leads us down the back alleys of fringe science, through the gleaming corridors of Washington power and even into our evolutionary past to search out the origins of voodoo science. Along the way, he offers simple and engaging science lessons, proving that you don't have to be a scientist to spot the fraudulent science that swirls around us. While remaining highly humorous, this hard-hitting account also tallies the cost: the billions spent on worthless therapies, the tax dollars squandered on government projects that are doomed to fail, the investors bilked by schemes that violate the most fundamental laws of nature. But the greatest cost is human: fear of imaginary dangers, reliance on magical cures, and above all, a mistaken view of how the world works. To expose the forces that sustain voodoo science, Park examines the role of the media, the courts, bureaucrats and politicians, as well as the scientific community. Scientists argue that the cure is to raise general scientific literacy. But what exactly should a scientifically literate society know? Park argues that the public does not need a specific knowledge of science so much as a scientific world view--an understanding that we live in an orderly universe governed by natural laws that cannot be circumvented.
The New York Times Book Review
"Few books have had the impact on my thinking of Charles Mackay's Extrordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published more than 150 years ago. It taught me that massive numbers of individuals have fallen victim to bizarre manias. Professor Park's Voodoo Science teaches us that, even in this age of science, it is still happening. My enthusiasm for this book leads me to recommend it, without reservation, to the intellectual community and The Rest of Us. Long life to Robert Park and his fellow thinkers who, sometimes with little profit to themselves, are so willing and able to lead us out of what I call 'dumbth.'"Steve Allen, author and TV personality
"I would like to make this book compulsory reading for medical students in their first year ... With brilliant insight and clarity of prose, [Park] describes the inevitable consequences of a debate between the true believer and sceptics ... This book was a joy and an entertainment."Healthwatch Newsletter
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IT'S NOT NEWS, IT'S ENTERTAINMENT In Which the Media Covers Voodoo Science
JOE NEWMAN AND THE ENERGY MACHINE
I CALLED JOE NEWMAN at his home in Lucedale, Mississippi. I was surprised when he answered the phone; I had tried several times before and always got a recorded message offering his book, The Energy Machine of Joseph W. Newman, for $74.95. I explained that I was writing a book about ideas that are not generally accepted by scientists, and it would not be complete without a full account of the Energy Machine. He seemed suspicious. "It's all in my book," he snapped. I told him I'd read his book at the time of his 1986 Senate hearing, but I wondered if his ideas had changed over the years. His voice softened. Well, he said, the book had been expanded and I should buy a new copy, but he still stood by everything he'd said before about how the Energy Machine works.
I waited through a long silence while he thought about what else he should tell me. Then he began talking. The big change since the Senate hearing was that Joe Newman had found God. Raised in a Methodist orphans' home until he ran away at fourteen, Joe became an atheist because he didn't believe a God would permit little children to suffer that much. But he now realized that the Energy Machine was meant to relieve human suffering, and that God had chosen Joe Newman to make the discovery because "he knew Joe Newman would be a good steward for his gift."
It saddened Newman that, in spite of his efforts, the benefitsfrom the Energy Machine were still not reaching the people of the world. "I do it for the human race," he said, "but the people I trusted most betrayed me and the human race." His patent lawyer, the company that supplied the batteries for his machine, even those who had testified on his behalf in court and in the Senate hearing had all used or sold his ideas. There are motors based on his ideas on the market right now, he assured me, that are more than 100 percent efficient; the manufacturers refuse to admit it so they won't have to pay him royalties. He didn't mind his ideas being stolen, if that meant they would be turned into things that would help the world, but these people were hiding the truth about his discovery. "They don't care about humanity," he said sadly.
There was a flash of the old Joe Newman when he vowed to sue his betrayers. The refusal of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to grant him a patent for "an unlimited source of energy" no longer mattered, he explained; he had patented the Energy Machine in Mexico, and because of the NAFTA and GATT agreements, his patent is now good all over the world. "A jury will bury these people," he assured me.
Meanwhile, a lot of people continue to believe that Joe Newman really has found a way to generate unlimited amounts of energy. Newman told me he was still demonstrating his Energy Machine around Mississippi and Louisiana and appearing from time to time on radio talk shows. He said they like him on talk radio, "not because they believe me, but because I'm good for ratings. Creative people," Joe sighed, "die poor." There was another long pause. "The people of Mississippi have not stood up behind this technology as they should have," he told me. "I'm leaving the state and heading west. People out there are very concerned about pollution; they'll recognize what this technology can do."
How much of this does Joe Newman really believe? Even now it's impossible to tell. Perhaps not even Joe Newman knows. But he has bounced back before. I first heard about him and his Energy Machine on January 11, 1984, on the CBS Evening News. "What's the answer to the energy crisis?" Dan Rather was asking, "Suppose a fellow told you the answer was in a machine he has developed? Before you scoff, take a look with Bruce Hall." CBS reporter Bruce Hall had traveled to the rural hamlet of Lucedale. A mile down a dirt road, past the KEEP OUT and NO TRESPASSING signs, Hall stood with Joseph Wesley Newman in front of his garage workshop. He described Newman as "a brilliant self-educated inventor." An intense, handsome man in his forties, dressed in work clothes, his dark hair combed straight back, the plainspoken mechanic looked directly into the eyes of the viewers. He declared that his Energy Machine could produce ten times the electrical energy it took to run it. "Put one in your home," he said, "and you'll never have to pay another electric bill."
It's the sort of story Americans love. A backwoods wizard who never finished high school makes a revolutionary scientific discovery. He is denied the fruits of his genius by a pompous scientific establishment and a patent examiner who rejects his application for a patent on "an unlimited source of energy" without even examining it, on the grounds that all alleged inventions of perpetual motion machines are refused patents. Not a man to be pushed around, Joseph Wesley Newman takes on the U.S. government, filing suit in federal court against the Patent and Trademark Office. It's the little man battling a gigantic, impersonal system.
There was no one on the CBS Evening News to challenge Newman's claim. On the contrary, the report included endorsements from two "experts" who had examined Newman's Energy Machine. Roger Hastings, a boyish-looking Ph.D. physicist with the Sperry Corporation, declared, "It's possible his theory could be correct and that this could revolutionize society." Milton Everett, identified as an engineer with the Mississippi Department of Transportation, told viewers, "Joe's an original thinker. He's gone beyond what you can read in textbooks." Watching the CBS broadcast that evening, most viewers must have been left wondering how the Patent Office could be so certain Joe Newman was wrong.
The Patent Office based its judgment on the long and colorful history of failed attempts to build perpetual motion machines, going back at least to the seventeenth century. Waterwheels had been used in Europe for centuries to grind flour, but many areas lacked suitable streams for a mill. Farmers in those areas were forced to transport their grain to distant mills and then lug the meal back. In 1618 a famous London physician named Robert Fludd wondered if a way could be found to run a mill without depending on nature to provide the stream. Dr. Fludd was, like Joe Newman, endowed with boundless self-confidence and a wide-ranging imagination; we will meet him again in his role as a healer. It occurred to Dr. Fludd that the waterwheel could be used to drive a pump, as well as to grind flour. The water that had turned the wheel could then be pumped back up into the millrace. That way, he reasoned, a reservoir of water could be used to run the mill indefinitely.
Dr. Fludd's idea failed, but his failure helped to lead others to one of the greatest scientific insights in history, paving the way for the industrial revolution. The amount of work a waterwheel can perform is measured by the weight of the water that comes out of the millrace, multiplied by the distance the water descends in turning the wheel. For Dr. Fludd's idea to work, the water would have to be lifted back up the same distance it fell in turning the wheel. All the energy generated in turning the wheel would be needed just to raise the water back to the reservoir. There would be no energy left over to grind the flour.
But the concept of energy or "work" as a measurable quantity did not exist in the seventeenth century. It would be another two hundred years before the flaw in Dr. Fludd's machine would be stated in the form of a fundamental law of nature: energy is conserved. Written as a mathematical equation, it is known as the First Law of Thermodynamics. There is no firmer pillar of modern science. It is the law that explains why a ball, no matter what it's made of, never bounces higher than the point from which it's dropped. The conservation of energy is consistent with our everyday experience: you can't get something for nothing.
Even if it ground no flour, however, Dr. Fludd's waterwheel could not be kept turning. Energy losses, including the heat generated by friction in the machinery, are inevitable. Without adding energy, any real machine, no matter how well it's built, would gradually slow down and stop. That's embodied in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Our bouncing ball, no matter what it's made of, can in fact never bounce quite as high as the point from which it's dropped. The first law says you can't win; the second law says you can't even break even.
In the nearly four hundred years since Robert Fludd's idea failed, hundreds of inventors around the world have tried to beat the laws of thermodynamics. The laws of thermodynamics always won. In frustration, and perhaps embarrassment, many inventors ended up resorting to fraud, constructing complex devices with cleverly concealed sources of energy to keep them running. Each failure, each fraud exposed, established the laws of thermodynamics more firmly. In 1911, the U.S. patent commissioner, annoyed that so much Patent Office time was being spent on impossible ideas, ruled that a patent application for a perpetual motion machine could not be submitted until one year after an actual operating model of the machine was filed with the Patent Office. If the machine was still running at the end of a year, the application would be accepted. None of the devices turned out to be quite that perpetual, and the new ruling seemed to bring an end to patent applications for perpetual motion machines.
None of this background was touched on in the CBS News story, which ended with a final camera shot of Joe Newman, his jaw set, declaring, "I'll keep fightin' and I'll fight till Hell freezes over." There was something compelling about this man. Whatever charisma is, Joe Newman had it. No matter, I thought; no one will take him seriously. It was the last I would ever see of Joseph Newman and his Energy Machine.
I was wrong, of course. Viewers with little knowledge of the conservation of energy had no reason to scoff. The experts had vouched for Newman, and Dan Rather, a trusted guest in millions of homes, had invited people to take the story seriously. Tens of thousands did. Joe Newman is a colorful American classic in the mold of Elmer Gantry, and whatever his faults, Americans like Elmer Gantry. They wanted Joe Newman to be right.
CBS News had transformed Joe Newman into a celebrity. He appeared on the Johnny Carson show and rented the Superdome in New Orleans for a week, where thousands of fans paid a dollar each to watch him demonstrate his Energy Machine. The crude five-hundred-pound device, with its huge armatures that he and his wife had laboriously wound by hand in their kitchen, was now tucked out of sight under the hood of a sleek red Sterling sports car, which Newman would drive around the floor of the Superdome at a stately four miles per hour while the crowd applauded.
Emerging triumphant from the Sterling, looking like the winner of the Indy 500, he tells the crowd that it could have kept going forever. Applause turns to cheering. "This machine is going to change the world!" he proclaims. "You know how I can say that? It's simple. Truth is like a high-intensity laser beam, and it will burn through garbage." He has them worked up now. "Do y'all believe this car was running on the current of a single transistor battery? Let me hear from you," he shouts, holding a tiny transistor-radio battery above his head. The crowd roars its approval; whistles and rebel yells mix with the cheers. Newman is ready with his final volley. He challenges any Ph.D. physicist in the crowd to come down and debate him. The spectators fall momentarily silent. They begin to titter as Newman shades his eyes, pretending to look in vain for some physicist coming out of the stands.
Most scientists, however, simply ignored Joe Newman. The prospect of someone with little education and no record of scientific accomplishment overturning the most basic laws of physics, laws that have withstood every challenge, seemed much too unlikely to bother with. They looked the other way while science was being abused. But could they have prevented it? Perhaps the most endearing characteristic of Americans is their sympathy for the underdog. They resent arrogant scientists who talk down to them in unfamiliar language, and government bureaucrats who hide behind rules. Moreover, Joe Newman's claim invoked one of the most persistent myths of the industrialized worldfree energy. Who has not heard stories of the automobile that runs on ordinary water? Suppressed, of course, by the oil industry. The public never tires of that story.
We will keep coming back to the dream of free energyand we will keep running into Joe Newman. Maybe we will come to understand him. But the Energy Machine of Joe Newman is just one small example of the abuse of science. It's all around us.
Science fascinates us by its power to surprise. Unexpected results that appear to violate accepted laws of nature can portend revolutionary advances in human knowledge. In the past century, such scientific discoveries doubled our life span, freed us from the mind-numbing drudgery that had been the lot of ordinary people for all of history, revealed the vastness of the universe, and put all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips. As a new century begins, molecular biology is unraveling the secrets of life itself, and physicists dare to dream of a "final theory" that would make sense of the entire universe.
Alas, many "revolutionary" discoveries turn out to be wrong. Error is a normal part of science, and uncovering flaws in scientific observations or reasoning is the everyday work of scientists. Scientists try to guard against attributing significance to spurious results by repeating measurements and designing control experiments. But even eminent scientists have have had their careers tarnished by misinterpreting unremarkable events in a way that is so compelling that they are thereafter unable to free themselves of the conviction that they have made a great discovery. Moreover, scientists, no less than others, are inclined to see what they expect to see, and an erroneous conclusion by a respected colleague often carries other scientists along on the road to ignominy. This is pathological science, in which scientists manage to fool themselves.
If scientists can fool themselves, how much easier is it to craft arguments deliberately intended to befuddle jurists or lawmakers with little or no scientific background? This is junk science. It typically consists of tortured theories of what could be so, with little supporting evidence to prove that it is so.
Sometimes there is no evidence at all. Two hundred years ago, educated people imagined that the greatest contribution of science would be to free the world from superstition and humbug. It has not happened. Ancient beliefs in demons and magic still sweep across the modern landscape, but they are now dressed in the language and symbols of science: a best-selling health guru explains that his brand of spiritual healing is firmly grounded in quantum theory; half the population believes Earth is being visited by space aliens who have mastered faster-than-light travel; and educated people wear magnets in their shoes to draw energy from the Earth. This is pseudoscience. Its practitioners may believe it to be science, just as witches and faith healers may truly believe they can call forth supernatural powers.
What may begin as honest error, however, has a way of evolving through almost imperceptible steps from self-delusion to fraud. The line between foolishness and fraud is thin. Because it is not always easy to tell when that line is crossed, I use the term voodoo science to cover them all: pathological science, junk science, pseudoscience, and fraudulent science. This book is meant to help the reader to recognize voodoo science and to understand the forces that seem to conspire to keep it alive.
The first exposure of most people to new scientific claims is through the news media, usually television, and that is where our story begins.
THE PATTERSON CELL AND THE MAGIC BEADS
ABC's Morning News on February 6, 1996, carried a story about another inventor, James Patterson, and another inexhaustible source of energy. "When Jack planted his magic seeds he got a beanstalk," the ABC news anchor began, "but when inventor James Patterson took his beadsalmost perfectly round beadsand mixed them with water, he says he got energy and lots of it. Now his invention may turn out to be the goose that lays golden eggs. Here's Michael Guillen." Once again, a trusted network news show was inviting people to take a "science" story seriously.
Correspondent Michael Guillen was standing with James Patterson in the inventor's cluttered garage workshop. Patterson had achieved a measure of success with a process for making tiny plastic beads that have a variety of rather mundane uses. Dressed in a laboratory smock, the cheerful, white-haired, seventy-five-year-old appeared to be a sort of avuncular caricature of an inventor. "I'm better'n a millionaire. I have converted alchemy to turn little beads into gold," he chuckles. When he coats his polymer beads with nickel and palladium, mixes them with salt water, and passes an electric current through it, he tells Guillen, two hundred times as much energy comes out as he puts in. How does it work? He says he has no idea.
Palladium? Electrolytic cells? I began paying closer attention. Patterson's claim sounded suspiciously like the discredited "cold fusion" claim made seven years earlier by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, two chemists from the University of Utah. Michael Guillen, who is himself a physicist, must surely have recognized the similarity, but if he did, he didn't share it with his audience. Instead, Guillen put on a serious face and spoke directly to the camera: "There have been dozens of claims of ideal energy sources around the world, but this device is different, because of the inventor's distinguished track record and because it has attracted serious interest from major companies. Most important, it seems to have been confirmed by independent scientists at prestigious universities. But for some, it just doesn't ring true."
That line served as the cue to bring on the "talking heads." These are "experts," usually identified only by a brief caption, delivering short, taped, sound bites. They are a standard fixture in television coverage of science. The first talking head, labeled "John Huizenga, nuclear scientist," said, "I would be willing to bet there's nothing to it." That was it! The contrary point of view in under three seconds. A second gray head, identified as Quentin Bowles, professor at the University of Missouri, disagreed: "It works, but we don't know why it works. That's the bottom line." The entire exchange took only seven seconds.
Quentin Bowles, an engineer, was not well known. John Huizenga, on the other hand, was a distinguished professor of nuclear chemistry at the University of Rochester, member of the National Academy of Sciences, head of a government panel convened in 1989 to investigate the cold fusion claims of Fleischmann and Pons, and author of the most authoritative book on the cold fusion controversy. Guillen could not have found a better-qualified expert. Any scientist who had followed cold fusion knew who John Huizenga was, but most viewers had never heard of either man. This created what Christopher Tourney, in Conjuring Science, calls "pseudosymmetry"the false impression that scientists' opinions are about equally divided on claims that may have little or no scientific support.
I searched the morning papers for any mention of the Patterson cell. Television news is valuable as a heads-up, but it's no substitute for print; with TV you find yourself wondering if a caption said Missouri or Mississippi, but there's no going back to check. In this case, however, I found nothing in the papers. A simple device that produces two hundred times as much energy as it consumes would alter the course of history. You might suppose that James Patterson and his magic beads would be a major news story, yet no other media outlet had mentioned it. And why had Michael Guillen so carefully avoided mentioning cold fusion? Was the public being deliberately misled?
Perhaps. The story wasn't news, and it certainly wasn't science; it was entertainment. Patterson, like Joe Newman, is an appealing and colorful figure. The term cold fusion was avoided because it evokes a negative image: most people recall vaguely that cold fusion claims have been discredited. By avoiding the term, however, Guillen obscured the really interesting story: cold fusion is alive! It has not gone away.
Although cold fusion disappeared from the front pages years ago, a dwindling band of believers has gathered each year since 1989 for a meeting at some swank international resort to share the results of their efforts to resuscitate cold fusion. The venue for the 1996 International Cold Fusion Conference was a luxury hotel with its own golf course in Sapporo, Japan. In 1995 the meeting was in Monte Carlo; the year before that, it was Maui. Like previous meetings, the Sapporo conference was a congenial gathering; the conference is not widely advertised outside the tight group of acknowledged believers. Perhaps because they feel themselves besieged by the rest of the scientific community, there is virtually no dissent among them. Even when they seem to be reporting contradictory results, they refrain from open criticism of each other's work and struggle to find common ground. One of the speakers at the Sapporo cold fusion conference was inventor James Patterson.
Those with doubts about cold fusion have not felt comfortable at these meetings and rarely attend. A notable exception is Douglas Morrison, a British-born high-energy physicist from CERN, the great European accelerator laboratory in Switzerland. Morrison has taken it upon himself to attend every one of these meetings and to keep the rest of the scientific community informed about the proceedings. Two years before the Sapporo event Morrison had officially retired, but for him, as for many prominent scientists, that only meant less income and more freedom to pursue whatever he found interesting and important. He seems unperturbed by the fact that he is treated with suspicion and even open hostility by other attendees, many of whom apparently believe he is in the pay of some powerful international organization bent on suppressing cold fusion. Morrison, who pays his own way to these conferences, simply explains that he loves good scienceand dislikes bad science. Morrison recalls that Pons, in a 1989 interview, had shown what he said was a small cold fusion boiler: "Simply put," Pons had explained, "in its current state it could provide boiling water for a cup of tea." Each year at the cold fusion conference Morrison politely asks, "Please, may I have a cup of tea?"
The believers return each year hoping for good news, but the news in 1996 was troubling. The principal source of funding for cold fusion research in the United States had been EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute, which is jointly operated by private power companies. A few months earlier, EPRI had announced that it was terminating support for cold fusion research. Now there were rumors that MITI, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which was sponsoring the Sapporo meeting, had also decided to pull out of cold fusion. To believers, it seemed inexplicable. Why would these organizations withdraw their support just when the research was on the verge of finally unraveling the puzzle of cold fusion?
Alas, it is always on the verge. Each year at the cold fusion conference there is great excitement over new results that are said at last to show incontrovertible proof that fusion is taking place at low temperatures. Perhaps it's new evidence of neutrons or gamma rays characteristic of deuterium fusion; or helium, the product of fusion, has been found in the metal lattice; or at last a reliable experiment has proven there is an energy gain; or a new theoretical analysis has shown that cold fusion is consistent with known laws of physics after all. But by the time of the next meeting, many of these papers will have been discredited or withdrawn because problems were discovered with the equipment, or because a flaw has been found in the theoretical analysis, or because others have been unable to obtain the same result. Cold fusion is no closer to being proven than it was the day it was announced.
These are scientists; they are presumably trained to view new claims with skepticism. What keeps them coming back each year with hope in their breasts? Why does this little band so fervently believe in something the rest of the scientific community rejected as fantasy years earlier? Agent Fox Mulder, the fictional FBI agent in the popular TV drama The X-Files, who deals with cases that seem to involve the paranormal, has a poster on the wall of his office that reads simply: I WANT TO BELIEVE. Like agent Mulder, the cold fusion faithful want to believe. If we are to understand why they have selected cold fusion to believe in, we must first review the extraordinary events in the spring of 1989.
COLD FUSION AND THE UTAH CHEMISTS
One reason scientists seemed unable to deal with Joe Newman's claim was that he had followed none of the "rules." New scientific findings are normally shared first with a few close colleagues, and perhaps tested in a departmental seminar. The work may also be formally presented at a scientific conferencealthough the Superdome might be frowned on as a scientific venue. If no problems turn up, the work is submitted to an appropriate scientific journal for publication. The journal editor will choose a few anonymous experts to review the work for obvious errors in the methods or reasoning and to ensure that proper credit is given to previous work. Reviewing the manuscripts of other scientists carefully and objectively is regarded as a sacred obligation.
Well, that's the theory, anyway. In practice, the process is occasionally noisy and unpleasant. Heated arguments can take place at scientific conferences. Reviewers are sometimes accused of obstructing the publication of results that contradict their own work, and editors are accused of bias. Rivalries develop that are as strong as anything that takes place on the playing field. Foolish work may find its way into print, while a spectacular insight becomes mired in some petty dispute. And yet, overall, the system works amazingly well: good work eventually rises to the top, while the clutter of shoddy science remains manageable. The scientific process transcends the human failings of individual scientistsbut with cold fusion, the process was in for a jolt.
It was Thursday, March 23, 1989. The Sun warmed the Earth that day, as it had for five billion years, by the high-temperature fusion of hydrogen nuclei. It will continue doing so for many more billions of years, which is to say that even in the fierce cauldron of the Sun, fusion is a rather slow process, which is a very good thing for us. In Salt Lake City, the University of Utah held a press conference to announce that two chemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, had discovered a limitless, nonpolluting source of energy. They called it cold fusion. "We've established a sustained fusion reaction by means that are considerably simpler than conventional techniques," Professor Pons declared. If it was true, they had duplicated the source of the Sun's energyin a test tube.
Moshe Gai, a Yale nuclear physicist, remembers he was on the expressway driving home when he heard the news on National Public Radio. If it was true, it would be the scientific discovery of the century. Gai was fast approaching exit 51; there was barely time to maneuver into the exit lane. He crossed over the expressway, reentered going the other direction, and headed back to the university. He thought he knew how to test the Utah claim.
The story had actually broken that morning. Hours before the Salt Lake City press conference, it appeared in the Financial Times in London and the Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal would run unfailingly optimistic cold fusion stories over the coming weeks, and even carry an editorial using the episode to boast that it was the leader in covering new technological developments. The University of Utah was using the Wall Street Journal to sell cold fusion, and the Wall Street Journal would use cold fusion to sell papers. Such a discovery could spawn an industry larger than any ever seen on Earth; that the story had been leaked to the world's most influential financial dailies was certainly no accident.
But there was an accident that night. At four minutes past midnight, in some cruel prank of the gods, the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, creating the largest oil spill in U.S. history. News of the Exxon Valdez disaster broke too late to make the morning papers on the East Coast, but the discovery of a limitless source of nonpolluting energy was on the front page of the New York Times. In the days that followed, the tragic images of dying birds and seals coated with thick, black oil would be a daily reminder of the price civilization pays for the energy that propels it. To the defilement of Prince William Sound, add acid rain, strip mining, Chernobyl, the greenhouse effect, and nuclear waste; civilization seemed to be drowning in the excrement of its own energy production. Cold fusion promised to liberate Earth from this slow strangulation.
The reaction of the scientific community to the news out of Salt Lake City was in sharp contrast to the indifference that had greeted Joe Newman's claim of unlimited energy five years earlier. Pons, after all, was a full professor of chemistry, with a lengthy record of research publications. Fleischmann, a visiting professor at Utah, was a professor at the University of Southampton and a member of the British Royal Society, a mark of considerable scientific distinction. They could not be ignored.
The day after the press conference, scientists in laboratories around the world were clustered around blackboards discussing the fragments of information that had appeared in the news. The first step was to ask whether the Utah claim was consistent with accepted physical principles. Initial calculations did not look promising. The information given to the press was, however, devoid of any details that might enable other scientists to judge the strength of the Utah claim or repeat the experiment. Calls to the University of Utah for more information produced nothing but the press release, which dealt more with the economic potential of cold fusion than with the scientific evidence.
This was no mere breach of etiquette. The integrity of science is anchored in the willingness of scientists to test their ideas and results in direct confrontation with their scientific peers. That standard of scientific conduct was being flagrantly violated by the University of Utah. Fleischmann and Pons were all over the newsbut they were not returning calls from other scientists. They had, as Joe Newman had, made their pitch directly to the media, and scientists were totally dependent on the media for information.
Extraordinary claims, as Carl Sagan said, are expected to be backed up by extraordinary evidence. An announcement of such importance would normally have been preceded by a careful review within the scientific community, and a detailed report would have been available to interested scientists at the time of the press conference. The basic claim of the two chemists, however, was clear: during electrolysis of heavy water (water in which ordinary hydrogen is replaced by deuterium), deuterium nuclei are squeezed so closely together in a palladium cathode that they fuse, releasing large amounts of energy. Deuterium is a naturally occurring stable isotope of hydrogen; its nucleus contains a neutron in addition to the single proton found in the nucleus of ordinary hydrogen. Since deuterium accounts for about 0.014 percent of all the hydrogen atoms in the ocean, the supply is inexhaustible.
The fusion of two deuterium atoms to form helium was studied by Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge as early as 1934. In the years since, few nuclear processes have been explored more thoroughly. Because of their positive charge, deuterium nuclei normally repel each other. If they can be forced close enough together, however, the short-range strong nuclear force takes over and the two nuclei "fuse" to form a compound nucleus consisting of two protons and two neutrons. These are the same particles that form the nucleus of ordinary helium, or helium-4, but while the helium-4 nucleus is very stable, the compound nucleus is created in a highly excited state, like an alarm clock that has been overwound. The spring snaps, and the compound nucleus violently casts off its excess energy.
The excess energy is carried away by nuclear radiation. About half the time, the radiation consists of a neutron ejected from the nucleus traveling at very high speeds. This converts the nucleus to helium-3, a lighter but stable isotope of helium. Both the helium and the energetic neutrons are unambiguous evidence that fusion has taken place. Because neutrons carry no electric charge, they easily escape through the walls of the experimental cell and can be detected with the right equipment.
Even at the highest concentrations of deuterium in the palladium cathode, however, it did not appear that deuterium nuclei would ever be close enough together to fuse. Fleischmann had explained in a television interview that the high concentration of deuterium in palladium was equivalent to a very high pressure. "Physicists," he said condescendingly, "have concentrated on high temperature; no one thought of using high pressure."
I was surprised by his comment; high concentrations of hydrogen isotopes in metals had been studied for years. Indeed, hydrogen isotopes in metals such as titanium, scandium, and erbium can reach concentrations two to three times greater than is possible in palladium. These metals are even used to store deuterium and tritium (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with two neutrons in the nucleus) in certain components of nuclear weapons, and they are perfectly stable. Normally, when scientists think they have a new idea, the first thing they do is head for the library to see if someone else thought of it first. How, I wondered, could Pons and Fleischmann have been working on their cold fusion idea for five years, as they claimed, without going to the library to find out what was already known about hydrogen in metals?
There were other problems: the by-products of deuterium fusion, in addition to helium, are neutrons, tritium, and gamma rays. At the power levels claimed by Pons and Fleischmann, their test cell would be expected to emit lethal doses of nuclear radiation. Yet here were the two beaming chemists, in a photograph that appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world, in jackets and ties, proudly holding their cell up for the cameras. As nuclear physicist Frank Close commented, it should have been the hottest source of radiation west of Chernobyl. There was skepticism even in the Physics Department at the University of Utah, where a dark joke making the rounds asked: "Have you heard the bad news about the research assistant in Pons's lab? He's in perfect health." If this was fusion, it was fusion of a sort never before seen, in which the energy is carried off as heat with little radiation. If it could not be explained by nuclear physics, the two chemists seemed to be saying, so much the worse for nuclear physics.
A few days after the Salt Lake City press conference, I was interviewed by NBC News chief science correspondent Robert Bazell. NBC, alone among the major news organizations, had not covered the story yet. Bazell had found a widespread conviction among scientists, particularly physicists, that the Utah claims were wrong. But no one seemed willing to say so bluntly on camera, and he was concerned that the public was not getting an accurate picture.
The interview took place in my Washington office. I briefly summarized why the cold fusion claim had to be wrong. As the NBC cameraman was packing up his equipment to leave, he asked me the question that couldn't be asked on camera: "So what's going on, doc? Is this fraud?" "I don't think so," I replied, "but give it a few weeks." Pons and Fleischmann had become world celebrities overnight, but in making their claim so forcefully and so publicly, they had left themselves no room to back down. If their claim did not hold up, and I was sure it would not, their character would be tested.
One reason Pons and Fleischmann had to be wrong was because the number of neutrons they claimed to see was at least a million times too small to account for the energy they reported. Still, if the experiment produced any neutrons at all, it would be proof that a nuclear process of some sort was taking place.
What makes such measurements difficult is a "noise background" of neutrons from cosmic rays. It's like trying to carry on a conversation at a noisy cocktail party; a hearing aid doesn't help, because it will also amplify the background chatter. You must stand as close together as possible and speak directly into each other's ear. At Yale, Moshe Gai and his students had built a large-aperture neutron detector that worked on the cocktail party principle: capture as much of the "signal" as possible. They were using the detector to measure very low levels of neutron emission from certain rare decays of atomic nuclei.
For the cold fusion studies, Gai had an inspiration: he would surround the cold fusion cell with two layers of detectors and count only those neutrons detected by both layers in the right sequence. In the cocktail-party analogy, it was like having a filter that would only let through one voice. He was so excited by the idea that he ate and slept in the nuclear physics lab for a month while he perfected the new detector. Eventually he would reduce the background level to an incredible two neutrons per daywhich he jokingly named Stanley and Martin. Gai was confident that with such a detector he would be able to test the cold fusion claim, but he knew nothing about electrochemistry.
The head of the Yale nuclear physics lab was Allan Bromley. One of the most prominent scientists in the country, the politically conservative Bromley was rumored to be on the short list for the position of science advisor to newly elected president George Bush. Bromley realized that Gai would need an expert electrochemist as a collaborator. He arranged for Gai to meet Kelvin Lynn, a forty-one-year-old electrochemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, just two hours away on the eastern end of Long Island. Lynn, it turned out, had been a student at the University of Utah and knew both Pons and Fleischmann. He was inclined to believe there must be something to their claim, and he was already starting to build the sort of electrolysis cell they used. It was a healthy collaboration: Gai and Lynn approached the problem with sharply different expectations.
Gai and Lynn were not the only ones obsessed with cold fusion. Scientists who had paid no heed to Joe Newman's Energy Machine were suddenly working day and night on cold fusion, even though the Utah claim seemed to violate much of what was known about nuclear physics. "If everybody knows it's wrong," a puzzled reporter asked me, "why are they all doing it?" Certainly there was the lure of possible new science, but for many there may also have been the smell of blood. "The crowd cheers just as loudly when the quarterback gets sacked as when he throws a touchdown," I told the reporter. But his question was troubling. Whatever their motives, scientists from all over the world, in every branch of physics and chemistry, were joining the race to test the Utah claim. It was starting to look more like a stampede.
Much the same sort of stampede had followed the discovery two years earlier of high-temperature superconductivity, another quite unexpected result that ran counter to many preconceived notions. There was one major difference: the discoverers of high-temperature superconductivity, Georg Bednorz and Karl Mueller at IBM's Zurich laboratory, who would share the Nobel Prize for their discovery a year later, adhered meticulously to the "rules" of scientific exchange. The public announcement of their discovery coincided with the publication in a peer-reviewed journal of every detail of their experiment. Everyone who tried it got the same result. Within weeks, high-temperature superconductors were being fabricated in junior high school science classes.
Any scientist who wanted to repeat the Pons-Fleischmann experiment, however, would first have to figure out what it was. Many scientists actually seemed to enjoy the challenge of penetrating the wall of secrecy thrown up by the Utah chemists. Overnight, an informal intelligence network took form. The Internet did not yet exist, but a computer bulletin board was set up to share information among laboratories all over the world. Fax machines were used to exchange press clippings. Video tapes of news interviews with Pons and Fleischmann were played over and over. Press photographs were blown up to get a closer look at the Utah apparatus; the width of Pons's wrist was used to estimate dimensions. Within days, other laboratories believed they were ready to repeat the cold fusion experiments of Pons and Fleischmann.
Initial press stories looked good for Utah. The scientific stampede set off by cold fusion was interpreted by many reporters as evidence that there must be something to it, and cold fusion was in the news almost daily. The mania fed on itself. Optimistic press reports encouraged other groups to go public with their own premature findings. A loose wire, electrode contamination, calibration errors, quirky detectorsall got reported as "anomalous results" or "partial confirmations."
When reports came in from groups that found no evidence of cold fusion, Pons and Fleischmann would explain that it took several days to "load" the cathode with deuterium before the reaction could begin. When these groups still saw nothing after a week, the Utah scientists said it sometimes took ten days; or three weeks; or the cathode was the wrong size; or they weren't using the right electrolyte; or it only worked with cast palladium and not with extruded. The rumor spread that Pons and Fleischmann were deliberately misleading researchers to conceal "the secret" while they negotiated with potential investors.
Nevertheless, on April 12, at the annual American Chemical Society meeting in Dallas, seven thousand chemists greeted Pons with a standing ovation. It was the first time since the March 23 press conference that the reclusive Pons had exposed himself to questions from other scientists. He shared the platform with physicist Harold Furth, the head of a laboratory at Princeton that had spent hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to create a sustained fusion reaction at high temperatures. It was this work that Pons had derided at the Salt Lake City news conference in his comment about "conventional techniques."
We should take a moment to talk about what "conventional" fusion isor at least might be. It has been the dream of scientists since the 1950s to build a practical fusion reactor using the same principle that powers the Sun: a high-temperature plasma in which the nuclei of hydrogen isotopes would collide with one another so violently that they would overcome their mutual repulsion and fuse. In physics, the term plasma refers to a gas at such high temperature that electrons are stripped from the atoms, so that rather than being a gas of neutral atoms, a plasma is a gas of positively charged ions and negative electrons. But even on the Sun, fusion is a slow process. That's why the Sun does not simply explode. It has been "burning" for billions of years and will continue for many billions more before its fuel is exhausted.
It's easy enough to duplicate the process in the laboratory; the problem is that on a laboratory scale it isn't very efficient. A hot gas will try to expand, cooling as it does; the plasma must be confined in some way, and therein lies the problem. On the Sun, which thankfully burns rather slowly, the attempt of the hot gas to expand is balanced by the powerful gravity. In a practical fusion reactor, the plasma must be even hotter than the Sun. But what container on Earth could withstand such high temperatures?
Scientists have been trying to use a magnetic bottle. It works like this: a charged particle moving in a magnetic field experiences a force at right angles to its motion, causing it to spiral about the direction of the magnetic field in a helical, or corkscrew, trajectory. The stronger the magnetic field, the tighter the spiral. These helical paths behave like the windings of an electromagnet, generating their own field, which adds to the external field, further compressing the hot plasma and raising the temperature still higher. Using this "pinch effect," it was thought, a magnetic bottle could contain a plasma at the temperature needed for sustained fusion. When the pinch effect was demonstrated in the late 1950s, it was believed that fusion power plants were just around the corner.
Of course, the plasma was still free to leak out the ends of the cylinder. That was to be solved by bending the cylinder into a torus, or doughnut shape, so it would have no ends. Everything seemed to work as planned, until they tried to scale things up to the point where more energy could be produced by fusion than was needed to heat the plasma. Scale-up often produces surprises. The first automobile, for example, could travel about 10 miles per hour. Straightforward improvements in engines, suspensions, steering, drive trains, etc., have increased that by an order of magnitude (i.e., a factor of ten) to about 100 mph. However, any attempt to scale up another order of magnitude, to 1,000 mph, runs into the sound barrier at about 740 mph. It's still possible, but physical principles that could be ignored at 100 mph make it extraordinarily difficult.
So it was with fusion. The fusion reactor must pass break-even, the point at which the fusion energy exceeds the energy needed to heat the plasma. But before break-even could be achieved, unexpected instabilities set in, causing the magnetic bottle to spring leaks. It's a little like trying to compress a balloon between your hands: it begins to bulge out between your fingers. As ways are found to overcome one sort of instability, a new one seems to be waiting at somewhat higher temperatures. Steady progress has been made in overcoming these problems, but a practical magnetic-confinement fusion reactor seems farther in the future than ever. The capital costs may turn out to be so high that fusion will not be practical until most other sources of energy are depleted. Cynics scoff, "Fusion is the energy source of the futureand always will be."
The world's most advanced facility for magnetic-confinement fusion research was the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, headed by Harold Furth. The centerpiece of the Princeton Laboratory was a mammoth toroidal confinement device of incredible complexity called a tokamak. Pons showed a slide of the Utah experimenta tabletop arrangement set up in a Rubbermaid dishpan to provide a constant-temperature bath. "This," he deadpanned, "is the U-1 Utah tokamak." The huge audience roared with laughter. Unruffled, Harold Furth asked a single question: "What happens in your experiment if ordinary water is substituted for heavy water?"
Much of experimental research is a matter of designing "controls" to ensure that your results show what you think they do and not some flaw in the equipment or in the design of the experiment. A control experiment is intended to be as nearly identical to the real experiment as possibleexcept for one critical element. In this case, the water was just such a factor. Since the hydrogen atoms in ordinary water have no neutrons, they cannot directly fuse to form helium, which needs either one or two neutrons in the nucleus. If something you have been attributing to deuterium fusion is observed with ordinary water, it means you've been fooling yourself.
Pons replied that they had not tried using ordinary water, but he agreed it seemed like a good idea. How could the Utah chemists have been working on this for five years as they claimed without performing such an elementary control experiment? This tiny ripple on an ocean of optimism failed to warn reporters, and many scientists as well, that something was wrong beneath the surface. Many of the reporters interpreted Furth's question as sour grapes, and the press began to play the theme of a war between physicists and chemists. It made a good story, but at many laboratories, physicists and chemistsfor example, the Moshe Gai-Kelvin Lynn collaborationhad already joined forces to tackle the problem of replicating the Utah experiment.
Pons returned to Utah from the meeting in Dallas, seemingly eager to try the "light-water" control experiment suggested by Furth, but a few days later when he was asked by a reporter what the result had been, Pons's only comment was a muttered, "We did not get the baseline we expected." Apparently the experiment behaved about the same with ordinary water as it had with deuterated water. Pons and Fleischmann would never mention the light-water experiment again.
This was a critical point in the evolving story of cold fusion. Pons had performed a critical test of their hypothesisand it failed. But rather than accept the obvious conclusion, they chose either to ignore the result or to believe that somehow fusion could take place with ordinary hydrogen. Had the wish now taken over completely, erasing a lifetime of scientific training? Or was it something else?
Meanwhile, in New Haven, Allan Bromley had received a call from the White House. President George Bush, a Yale graduate, wanted to meet with him immediately to discuss the position of science advisor. Bromley was the natural choice for the job. He had served President Reagan on the White House Science Council and advised Bush during the campaign. Bromley fit the role perfectly. Physicists tend to be a lean and scruffy-looking lot, too absorbed in their work to pay much attention to their appearance. They don't fit comfortably into the dark suits and white shirts favored in Washington. Bromley, by contrast, was an impressive figure, given to conservative suits and bow ties, with an abundant shock of wavy white hair that curls upward on the back of his neck, and the sort of voice you imagine for a Roman senator. In any gathering, it always looked like he was in charge.
Bromley drove to La Guardia and caught the Eastern Shuttle to Washington. At the White House, the first question he was asked by President Bush was whether the cold fusion reports coming out of Utah were believable. Both the administration and Congress were under growing pressure to invest heavily in what was already being touted as the energy source for the twenty-first century. Bromley was ready for the question; the Yale-Brookhaven collaboration of Gai and Lynn had just briefed him on their preliminary findings. There was no neutron emission. He confidently informed the president that the reports out of Utah were in error.
In Utah, the state legislature, unaware of growing skepticism within the scientific community, met in special session to vote the University of Utah $5 million to begin developing cold fusion. The university said agreements would be signed only with companies that would base some of their effort in Utah. It was reported that James Fletcher, the retiring head of NASA and a former president of the University of Utah, had agreed to oversee the Utah cold fusion effort. Fletcher was a devout Mormon, and many Utah Mormons were convinced that the discovery of cold fusion came directly from God to rescue the state from serious economic problems.
At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Edward Teller, the aging "father of the H-bomb" and an almost mythic hero to conservatives, had declared soon after the Salt Lake City press conference that cold fusion "sounds right." His protégé, Lowell Wood, anxious to prove his mentor correct, attempted to reproduce the Fleischmann-Pons experiment. Unfamiliar with electrochemistry, Wood set off an explosion in his laboratory when hydrogen, liberated by electrolysis, ignited. The blast shattered his apparatus and ended his quest for cold fusion.
In Washington, the Strategic Defense Initiative began organizing a workshop to examine whether cold fusion could power a Star Wars missile defense, and Senator Jake Garn of Utah was arranging for an Air Force transport to carry a load of Washington dignitaries to Salt Lake City for a firsthand look. Representative Robert Walker, the ranking Republican on the House Science Committee, submitted a budget amendment transferring $5 million from the Energy Department's program in conventional "hot fusion" to cold fusion, and the committee announced it would hold hearings on "recent developments in fusion energy." Cold fusion seemed to have pushed the rest of the scientific enterprise aside.
In New Haven, at 7:00 A.M. on April 21, Allan Bromley was in the shower when the phone rang. His wife Pat answered the phone. "Could I speak to Allan?" the familiar voice said. "This is George Bush." Unadorned and dripping water across his study, Bromley hurried to the phone. A puddle collected at his feet as the president asked him to take on the duties of science advisor. He was needed in Washington.
During this period, the public heard little about the growing skepticism of scientists. It is not, of course, up to the media to decide what is good or bad science. The media was reporting what it heard from scientists. Only a tiny fraction of all scientific research is ever covered by the popular media, however, and most scientists go through their entire career without once encountering a reporter. New results and ideas are argued in the halls of research institutions, presented at scientific meetings, published in scholarly journals, all out of the public view. Voodoo science, by contrast, is usually pitched directly to the media, circumventing the normal process of scientific review and debate. We saw this in the case of the Newman Energy Machine, the Patterson cell, and the cold fusion claims of Pons and Fleischmann. The result is that a disproportionate share of the science seen by the public is flawed.
The reluctance of scientists to publicly confront voodoo science is vexing. While forever bemoaning general scientific illiteracy, scientists suddenly turn shy when given an opportunity to help educate the public by exposing some preposterous claim. If they comment at all, their words are often so burdened with qualifiers that it appears that nothing can ever be known for sure. This timidity stems in part from an understandable fear of being seen as intolerant of new ideas. It also comes from a feeling that public airing of scientific disputes somehow reflects badly on science. The result is that the public is denied a look at the process by which new scientific ideas gain acceptance. We will discuss that process in the next chapter.
More perplexing was the overreaction of the scientific community to improbable claims based on the flimsiest of evidence and shrouded in secrecy. The principal reason for keeping science secret, after all, is that the science is questionable. Perhaps many scientists found in cold fusion relief from boredom. Much of a scientist's time is consumed with the routine labor of small advances; the sudden insightsthe "eureka moments"that are the reward the research scientist seeks can be separated by long periods of tedium.
We have left the cold fusion story unresolved, but we will return to Pons and Fleischmann. They did not go gently. Nor have we seen the last of Joe Newman and his Energy Machine, or James Patterson and his magic beads. There are still lessons to be learned from these episodes, and questions left unanswered. Was thereis therefraud involved? Did the scientific community rush to judgment in the spring of 1989? We will try to find answers to these questions and look for parallels in other examples of voodoo science. But first we must ask why, faced with the same set of facts, some believe and others doubt.
Meet the Author
Robert L. Park is Professor of Physics and former chairman of the Department of Physics at the University of Maryland. He also directs the Washington Office of the American Physical Society. He is a prolific writer of op-eds for The New York Times and other papers, and a regular contributor of science features for The Washington Post. He also posts a provocative and popular weekly electronic column on science issues at http://www.opa.org/WN/. He lives in Adelphi, Maryland.
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