Finding cold fusion

Many of you older than 40 will remember the brief "cold fusion" euphoria of the late 1980's, the "discovery" that an almost infinite amount of energy was available from obtainable ingredients. The claimants, Martin Fleischmann and B. Stanley Pons, were soon discredited, and I have always considered Fleischmann, when I thought of him at all, as something of a carnival barker.

In his time Martin Fleischmann was an established scientist, however, and an electrochemist who had published often, according to an obituary in the New York Times Sunday.

These paragraphs in particular caught my eye:

In the early 1980s, the two were hiking in Mill Creek Canyon in Utah when their conversation turned to experimental results from the late 1960s that still puzzled them. They began to conceive a follow-up experiment and fleshed out details at Dr. Pons’s kitchen table while sipping whiskey.

'Sometimes we like to talk about the impossible just for fun,' Dr. Fleischmann told The Los Angeles Times in 1989.

The two put up $100,000 of their own money for the research (Dr. Pons’s contribution was larger) because they feared others would think the enterprise 'stupid.' Around 1983, they began to see promising data. Six years later, when they found out that another researcher was approaching cold fusion in a different manner, they made plans to publish their separate findings in the same journal.

But according to the story, their institution, the University of Utah, concerned about the possibility of sharing patentable information, rushed the "discovery" to the public, bypassing the journals of the day. Peer review might have buried the claims with injuries only to academic reputations. Or maybe the two knew better than to publish. Perhaps Fleischmann and Pons wanted to believe too much. Perhaps competitive natures got the best of them. Maybe they just weren't very careful scientists and their luck ran out. In any case, the two became outcasts. 

Fusion may well be impossible on Earth. After all, the only known fusion is happening in the cores of stars. But reading Fleischmann's obituary, I found myself feeling a bit more sympathetic - just a bit - to the man who said he "liked to talk about the impossible just for fun." I think it's because nothing much of worth happens unless there is some fun involved, or at least an intense curiosity to see what's around the corner. For me the two are interchangeable. I'm a bit more sympathetic - just a bit - because many great claims often make fools of the claimant. Initially hailed for their breakthrough, I wonder if any misgivings over their slippery data may have had simply disappeared in the too-human reaction to the recognition and the lauds. Maybe stars in jars were possible after all.

There are always lessons in failure. And for me, the lesson is never to bet more than can be lost, so that - so that - one can wager again. To achieve something that lasts, make many little bets.


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