Cocktail Party Physics

Cocktail Party Physics

Physics With a Twist

Genie in a Bottle: The Case Against Cold Fusion


It's starting to look like Debunking Week at the cocktail party. A couple of weeks ago, my SciAm Scibling Joanne Manaster alerted me to a new film called The Believers, detailing the cold fusion controversy. It debuted at the Chicago International Film Festival October 14, where it won the Gold Hugo -- as Joanne points out, this is quite a feat, since movies specifically about science don't show up that often, even among independent documentaries. It took the production company, 137 Films, three years to put The Believers together, and they're currently looking for a distributor.

I can't speak for the quality of the film, because I haven't seen it, but as someone who has covered physics for (*cough*) going on 20 years, I well remember the controversy, and have followed it off and on over the years. So I readily admit to getting a little rant-y when I encounter insufficiently skeptical reportage on this topic. It's prime ground for wishful thinking: who wouldn't want a source of cheap, limitless energy? I sure do! But wanting something to be true isn't the same as something actually being true in the rigorous experimental sense of the word.

Still, it's fantastic fodder for a documentary, if handled responsibly. Based on the trailer, The Believers strikes me as fairly even-handed in its treatment, giving voice to the diehard cold fusion acolytes as well as the many (many!) naysayers -- including my old pals from the American Physical Society's DC office, Michael Lubell and Robert Park, author of Voodoo Science (who I profiled many years ago for Salon).

Look closely and you can also catch a glimpse of a scene from The Saint, which had cold fusion as a central plot point. That inspired me to dig up one of my classic Cocktail Party Physics posts from 2007 (suitably edited), for those who might want a bit of background on the underlying science. (Fair warning: since this topic always seems to bring out the diehard acolytes, I will be monitoring the comment thread to ensure it doesn't fill up with a lot of long-winded pseudoscientific rants and the usual accusations of close-minded bias and being a tool of The Man. Yes, I can totally do that. My blog, my rules.)

UPDATE: Despite clearly stating above that I would be moderating the comment thread, and explaining why, several would-be commenters from the pro-cold fusion community -- a.k.a. "the usual suspects" -- were shocked, shocked! I tell you, to find that (a) I followed through on this, and (b) this policy actually applied to them. The predictable cries of "Censorship!" were heard around the Internet -- which ably demonstrates why moderation is not censorship. There is an entire Internet out there for people to rail against the unfairness of it all, write lengthy point-by-point "rebuttals" that detail my many perceived bloggy sins, call me an idiot, and generally trash my character if they so choose. This blog? This is my space. And I like to keep it tidy. Comments are now closed on this post.


In 1997's The Saint, Simon Templar (Val Kilmer) is a master thief and master of disguise who takes on assumed names associated with Catholic Saints (in this case, the patron saint of magic). Eventually, he's hired by a Russian industrialist to steal a formula for cold fusion from a pretty young female scientist, thereby having access to the secret of heating millions of homes with a few gallons of water. This being Hollywood, he falls in love with her instead, and together they bring limitless energy to the world at large, using nothing but electrodes in a jar of heavy water.

The film's scientific premise is right up there with the presentation of sonoluminescence as a powerful energy source in Chain Reaction. The main difference is that sonoluminescence -- while nowhere near the stage of development depicted onscreen -- is nonetheless a well-respected, well-funded field of study, whereas cold fusion has pretty much languished along the edges of the lunatic fringe since its alleged discovery over 20 years ago.

Cold fusion has a handful of diehard supporters (many of whom are featured in The Believers), but the field boasts a far greater number of crackpots who inevitably undermine the rare occasions when a bona fide result is obtained in such experiments. Prevailing opinion is that the vast majority of cold fusion research falls under the rubric of "pathological science": the results are always on the verge of a stunning validation, and whenever said validation fails (again) to materialize, there is always a handy rationale for why it isn't really a definitive failure.

Media coverage has not always been stellar, although in 2000, TIME magazine had the good sense to list cold fusion as one of the "worst ideas" of the 20th century. In 2oo4, Popular Mechanics ran a despicable piece of fear-mongering cover story claiming that terrorists could use cold fusion to build their own hydrogen bombs. (The magazine was a teensy bit more circumspect in reporting Italian claims of cold fusion in 2011, in that they included the word "dubious" in the headline. You can read my own take on the 2011 claims at Discovery News/How Stuff Works.) For an example of truly stellar reporting on the topic, see Sharon Weinberger's November 21, 2004, feature for The Washington Post, which is the most balanced and nuanced treatment I've yet read.

Perhaps you feel these plucky, anti-establishment rebel scientists really are are thisclose to achieving a cheap, plentiful supply of energy based on simple high school chemistry -- if only that stodgy, closed-minded, mean scientific establishment would stop making fun of them and provide sufficient funding resources.

It's admittedly a compelling narrative -- everyone loves seeing an underdog prevail -- but it just isn't true. The real story of cold fusion is every bit as fascinating and provocative, but not nearly as black and white. It's less about scientific villainy, and more about all-too-human foibles. That's why there have been several full-length books written on the subject.

There is a great deal of information readily available online, including original video footage of the infamous 1989 press conference that started it all, coverage in both the science trade press and mainstream media, and the full reports from the Department of Energy, which conducted official reviews in both 1989 and 2004. There are also a couple of popular science books offering both pro (Eugene Mallove's Fire From Ice) and con (Gary Taubes' Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion) viewpoints.

In 1989, two chemists at the University of Utah named Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann believed they had succeeded in producing nuclear fusion in a jar -- without the need to recreate the temperatures and pressures found in the centers of stars which run on "hot" fusion.

We can achieve hot nuclear fusion, but it requires more energy than it gives back, so it's pretty much an energy sinkhole for the time being (although the physicists are working the problem, yes they are!). Anyway, their finding was counter to everything known to date about nuclear fusion, both in theory and experiment.

Generally, when there's a significant breakthrough in science, it's written up in a formal paper containing all the information needed for other scientists to replicate the experiment and test the results -- because reproducibility is one of the most fundamental elements of the scientific method. That paper is submitted to a reputable, peer-reviewed journal, and if enough reviewers give it a thumb's up, the paper is published, and other scientists can critique and/or build upon their work.

The system is imperfect -- egos and rivalries can get in the way -- but over the long haul, it has served science well. It's an equally accepted maxim that the more potentially revolutionary the result, the greater the burden of proof: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence in order to be accepted by the scientific community. And cold fusion was a truly extraordinary claim.

Pons and Fleischmann at their infamous 1989 press conference announcing cold fusion.

Pons and Fleischmann, for whatever reason, ignored the established protocol and jumped right into the public domain, announcing their results in a March 23, 1989 press conference -- even as they were applying for patents for what they believed would become a hugely lucrative industry.

Those pending patent applications were cited as the reason they couldn't reveal all the details of their experiment or provide appropriate documentation of their results -- which meant their results couldn't be tested and verified by other scientists. Basically, they wanted it both ways: they wanted scientific glory for their work, while hoarding the details in hopes of reaping a fortune in proprietary patent rights.

The Utah press release made the situation worse by indulging in unfortunate hyperbole, hailing the breakthrough as something that would provide "an inexhaustible source of energy."

Now, anyone who's covered science as a reporter knows to be wary when such a claim is made: we're all for new and improved energy sources, but inexhaustible? Nature just doesn't work that way; it sounded more like that perennial bugbear, perpetual motion, rather than any kind of serious science. The New York Times was suitably cautious, and initially refused to run the story, but the Wall Street Journal apparently just saw the dollar signs and published a euphoric front-page article on the breakthrough. Soon other major newspapers followed suit, and it was a media feeding frenzy.

Scientists -- especially physicists -- shared the Times' skepticism, in part because of the manner in which Pons and Fleischmann had made their announcement. "Conventional science requires you to play by certain rules," retired Los Alamos scientist turned underground cold fusion researcher Edmund Storms is quoted in a Wired feature (also distressingly uncritical of the claims) as saying. "First, thou shalt not announce thy results via a press conference. Second, thou shalt not exaggerate the results. Third, thou shalt tell other scientists precisely what thou did. They broke all of those rules."

The unwritten "rules" of scientific culture are in place for very good reasons -- and if you break them, it's best to have a damned good reason of your own for doing so, or at least killer experimental results with all the requisite documentation in hand for independent verification. Is it any wonder Pons and Fleischmann faced a rather cool reception?

Eventually they published a 50-page paper with all of the necessary details, but it was rushed, sloppy, and contained at least one egregious error concerning their analysis of the gamma ray spectra. This did not help strengthen their case. Still, they might have been grudgingly forgiven their poor scientific manners and initial awkward missteps if their work had been verified. Scientists love a good underdog story as much as anybody.

The problem was, hundreds of researchers all over the world scurried to reproduce the experiments, and failed. There were glimmers of hope here and there: teams at Texas A&M and the Georgia Institute of Technology excitedly reported results of excess heat and neutron production, respectively, in April, but withdrew those results almost immediately, citing "lack of evidence." By the end of 1989, a panel of experts had conducted a Department of Energy review of the matter, and concluded there was no basis for the claims. As far as mainstream science was concerned, that was the final nail in cold fusion's coffin.

Michael McKubre working on deuterium gas-based cold fusion cell used by SRI International, in February 2007. Photo by Steven B. Krivit. Public domain.

But like a lot of pseudoscience -- to which it is frequently compared -- cold fusion refuses to die. It's tough not to admire the steely resolve of cold fusion advocates, who have faced derision, suffered in their careers, and labored to build their own scientific enterprise from scratch: their own meetings, their own journals, their own community. (Then again, there's a whiff of, "Fine! If we can't play in the big sandbox, we'll just go make our own!")

Alas, those are ideal conditions for crackpots to flourish, so they've got some strange bedfellows, but they've also got a handful of otherwise respectable scientists conducting experiments in cold fusion.

Pons and Fleischmann reportedly had a bitter falling out and parted ways in 1995. Fleischmann died in August, and Pons become something of a recluse. The new dynamic duo of cold fusion is SRI International chemist Michael McKubre and MIT physicist Peter Hagelstein.

[UPDATE: To clarify, because thanks to a commenter, I realized this wasn't obvious from the structuring of the post: McKrube and Hagelstein are both examples of the legitimate, serious researchers mentioned below who are trying to do careful experiments in low-energy nuclear reactions.]

Gradually, the serious researchers started presenting papers at meetings other than their own, including those of the American Physical Society. They chipped away at the tarnished reputation of their chosen field, publishing peer-reviewed papers now and then on purported evidence of was they renamed "low-energy nuclear reactions."

Eventually, the DOE decided, in fairness, to take another look at the accumulated evidence over the last 15 years and re-evaluate the cold fusion controversy. This time, they relented just a little: they still didn't find the evidence sufficiently convincing to launch a federally-funded research program.

The panel split on the issue of whether subsequent experiments had validated the occasional production of "excess heat," citing poor experimental design, documentation, background control, etc., as muddying their determinations. (Out of 18 members, 12 found no conclusive evidence, five found the evidence somewhat convincing, and only one was completely convinced.) But they felt that funding agencies should consider funding proposed projects on a case-by-case basis, provided those proposals "meet accepted scientific standards and undergo the rigors of peer review."

It's true that over the past two decades, there have been reports of what appear to be tiny excess bursts of energy in various experiments. But even Hagelstein has admitted to continued experimental inconsistency; some "results" have never been reproduced. Cold fusion's claims of verification are based on a bizarre kind of statistical rationale: sure, most of the results are negative, but they have now amassed such a statistically significant sampling of instances of claimed excess heat that at least some of those results must be valid, and any lack of the effect is due to flawed experiments.

Cold fusion apparatus at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego. Credit: Steven Krivit. Via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: User:Sasikiran_10.

The WaPo article cited esteemed nuclear physicist Richard Garwin as a source for its dismissal of that tortured argument: "It's absurd to claim that experiments that seem to support cold fusion are valid, while those that don't are flawed." There are a few more scientists around these days who are willing to concede there might be something of marginal interest going on, but most remain unconvinced that it's bona fide cold fusion. And hardly anyone holds out any hope of it ever becoming a viable energy source.

Its biggest problem is the lack of reproducibility, even in the experiments of the most respected members of the cold fusion community. McKubre, for instance, admitted to Weinberger that out of 50,000 hours of experiments, only 50 recorded instances have occurred that "unmistakably" produced excess heat.

That's just not good enough. Science must maintain its integrity -- if only to counter the inevitable human frailties of its practitioners -- and that means we can't lower the bar of standards for reproducibility just because palladium is a "quixotic" metal, riddled with unpredictable, unevenly distributed impurities.

Seriously, that's one of the main excuses given by cold fusion advocates as to why they get such inconsistent results. Materials issues are a bitch, experimentally, it's true, but cold fusion is not the only field faced with overcoming those challenges, so why should its experimental inconsistencies be excused on those grounds?

As for that "excess heat," it's nothing to get excited about just yet, since it's a very small amount indeed. Another Wired article quoted cold fusionist Mitchell Swartz as saying the question now is not whether the experiments can generate excess heat, "It's can we can get a kilowatt? Can we get a small car moving on this stuff?"

Heck, if they could just boil some water, that would be a tremendous accomplishment. The late Scottish physicist Douglas Morrison was one of the rare skeptical attendees of the annual cold fusion conferences until his death inn 2001. Each year, he would listen to the extravagant claims, then stand and make a simple request: "Please can I have a cup of tea?" It was a bit cheeky of him, but he made his point: cold fusion talks a good game, yet even the simplest applied energy task remains well beyond its reach.

And what of the implied vast scientific conspiracy to squelch further research and kill the field entirely (perhaps to ensure that the major investments in hot fusion research don't become obsolete)? The "evidence" for that is mostly anecdotal hearsay -- i.e., not true evidence at all.

Science undeniably has its politics, its bitter rivalries, petty jealousies, and its turf wars. There's some hefty egos involved, and feelings tend to run a bit high on both sides of the controversy. Scientists aren't always very polite in their disagreements, either. On the whole, though, cooler heads ultimately prevail in the public sphere, however much heated rhetoric is flung around in private.

I've personally heard physicists dismiss Hagelstein as an embarrassment to MIT. (Hagelstein has countered by describing the mainstream scientific community as a closed-minded "mafia," that only publishes the work of the official "family" of scientists.) Caltech physicist Steven Koonin famously denounced Pons and Fleischmann as "delusional," and Princeton physicist Will Happer once described them as "incompetent boobs."

Park has been one of the fiercest of cold fusion's often-vitriolic critics. Yet he has corresponded with many cold fusion scientists over the years, and welcomed the second DOE review. He still thinks it's most likely a bunch of bad science, but conceded to the WaPo, "Maybe there is... some funny reaction going on.... If there is, it may solve some puzzles, but it won't be important."

Cold fusion has had its day in court, so to speak, not once, but twice, and some skeptical scientists have been willing to listen to a few of the more reputable claims. Garwin was a member of the 1989 DOE review panel, and subsequently visited McKubre's lab at SRI in 1993.

Far from dismissing the work outright, he praised the lab for its "serious and competent work," and found no huge blunder in the experimental setups. (That's something that sets McKubre's work apart from the vast majority of cold fusion experiments, which caused Garwin to gripe to the WaPo, "People who can't do a good sophomore experiment are suddenly free to suggest that the discrepancies in their results come from unexplained, basic, earth-shaking, heat-producing phenomena.") But he did identify any number of possible problems with the setup, as well as some measurement errors, concluding bluntly, "Did not support any finding of 'excess heat.'"

None of this amounts to a cabal-like conspiracy n the part of the scientific establishment -- a notion that provides the linchpin of an emerging "cold fusion mythology" that has little basis in reality. The scientific community as a whole has not unfairly dismissed the claims: it simply remains unconvinced by the erratic evidence that has been presented to it.

Should cold fusion advocates one day beat the odds and provide truly reproducible, compelling evidence for low-energy nuclear reactions, the stodgy old scientific establishment might grumble a bit, but ultimately it will accept those findings and alter its theories accordingly. Because that's what the scientific method is all about.

Adapted from an August 2007 post on the old archive site, which also appeared in the 2007 Open Lab anthology.


I'm submitting this comment on behalf of Steven Krivit; for some reason it's not showing up in the moderation queue, and wouldn't even let ME post the comment under my own handle. Clearly there IS a conspiracy to keep Steven from commenting, but I hope this addresses the issue. BTW, this is the kind of comment that actually adds to the discussion, even if Steven and I happen to be at odds on this issue, and I thank him for his willingness to be pleasant.


Hi Jennifer,

Thank you for your refreshing perspective. I appreciate that you care enough about science to voice your well-founded criticism.

Being much closer to the fray than you, I fully understand your frustration with the cold fusion believers. I disavowed my belief in "cold fusion" several years ago. You can imagine some of the e-mail I got at the time.

But you also, by omission, discount the baby that you have thrown out with your bathwater. You would hold a stronger case if you look carefully at the experimental work and then distinguish between the discredited idea of "cold fusion" versus the idea of low-energy nuclear reactions, which, in my definition, does not presume or assert fusion. I have published this distinction in Wiley and Sons and Elsevier science encyclopedias. May I send you copies of my chapters? I have also presented the distinction several times at the American Chemical Society.

It's all well and good to be cynical about why "cold fusion" is unlikely and unsupported by credible physics theory. I agree. But there is a better way to handle this controversy. Note, in 2008, I began to show, experimentally, why the data disproves the hypothesis of "cold fusion."

Please come to the American Nuclear Society meeting next month if you can. I'll explain this even more clearly there.


Steven B. Krivit

Publisher and Senior Editor, New Energy Times


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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