Washington Post, Time and others attack cold fusion

The recent scandal in South Korea with the cloning researcher Woo Suk Hwang prompted several newspapers and magazines to compare Hwang’s academic fraud to cold fusion. In January 8, 2006, the Washington Post published an article about this titled “Barely a Drop of Fraud” by Prof. Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, (Yale University), page B03. It says:

It is true that there have been some great scientific misdeeds in the past. Who can forget Piltdown Man, the manufactured fossil skull that puzzled anthropologists for decades? Or the claims of the discovery of cold fusion in 1989 at the University of Utah?


.. . . Similarly, the Piltdown hoax, which was revealed decades after the manipulated skull’s supposed discovery, caused no collateral damage. Paleontology, a historical science, did not have an immediate impact on contemporary physics or medicine. And cold fusion was swiftly debunked, which kept its costs confined to the state of Utah.

These comments are beyond the pale. Cold fusion was never “debunked” and even the harshest critics until now have never suggested that it was fraudulent. The cold fusion effect was replicated at high signal to noise ratios by researchers at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, Shell, Amoco, SRI, Texas A&M, Los Alamos, Mitsubishi Res. Center, BARC Bombay, Tsinghua U. and over a hundred other world-class laboratories.

Several researchers sent messages to Prof. Kevles and to the Washington Post protesting these statements. The Post has not responded. The Yale Daily News student newspaper printed a letter from E. Storms protesting Kevles’ remarks, and pointing out that cold fusion may become an important source of energy. Kevles responded by saying that only Fleischmann and Pons are guilty of “scientific misdeeds,” and that the cold fusion research performed after they published had nothing to do with them:

Pons and Fleischmann’s initial published paper about their research lacked essential raw data and experimental details. When asked to supply their scientific colleagues with more information, they persistently refused. Other scientists trying to replicate their experiments could only guess at the apparatus they had used.
Eventually, their particular claims were refuted as theoretically unfounded and without experimental support. This is the incident I referred to in my article and it has altogether nothing to do with research since in this field.

Cold fusion researchers replicated the Fleischmann-Pons experiment, and cited the original paper in their published replications, so it makes no sense to say their work “has altogether nothing to do with this research.” Furthermore, Fleischmann and Pons did not hide their work, but on the contrary they assisted others in this field by supplying palladium samples, and Fleischmann co-authored papers with others. Other researchers in this field hold Fleischmann and Pons in the highest regard, and they think that Kelves should apologize for calling their actions “misdeeds.”

Commentators in Time magazine, the Guardian and elsewhere have made similar comparisons. M. D. Lemonick wrote in Time:

. . . It wouldn’t be the first time. In 1996 chemists from the University of Utah claimed they had discovered “cold fusion.” They hadn’t, it turned out, but a combination of ambition, fear of competition and pressure from the university led them to announce the discovery before they had any proof.

We contacted the author and informed him that the date was 1989, and that the claims were subsequently replicated by hundreds of researchers, and these replications were published in the peer-reviewed literature. We suggested he should review the relevant literature before commenting on the research.

Lemonick responded with a series of unfounded and increasingly bizarre statements. He said that Fleischmann and Pons “wouldn’t even let anyone see their experimental apparatus.” We pointed out this cannot be true, because, as noted above, they provided samples of material and they co-authored papers with other researchers.

Lemonick eventually conceded that the other researchers have made claims, but he said: “It may be that others have produced cold fusion since, but that’s not the same thing.” We asked him what he meant by this in view of the fact that the same materials and techniques are used and the same results obtained. We pointed out that the authors all reference the original paper by Fleischmann and Pons, and say they are replicating it. He did not respond. Instead, he asked out of the blue:

“So . . . anybody can repeat [the experiment]. That’s what you’re saying, right?”

Rothwell responded: “Good heavens no! I did not say that, and that is completely incorrect. I would say you need a Ph.D. in electrochemistry, a well-equipped laboratory and anywhere from two months to a year of rigorous preparation and materials testing (depending on what equipment and materials you happen to have in hand). Prof. Richard Oriani is one of the top electrochemists in the United States. After he replicated, he described this as the most difficult experiment he did in his 50-year career. . . .”

In our earlier messages we emphasized several times that the experiments are difficult, so we cannot imagine why Lemonick arrived at the notion that “anyone can repeat” them. It is clear that Lemonick is grasping at straws, he knows nothing about cold fusion, and he did not even bother to do a cursory Google search on cold fusion, since he did not recall the date it was revealed. It is surprising that a national magazine such as Time would publish his views on the subject. It is a shame they will not allow a cold fusion researcher to set the record straight, but so far they have ignored letters to the editor on this subject.