The first principle of science is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
The passing of Martin Fleischmann on August 3 brings to mind one of the most famous (and infamous) recent episodes in the history of science: the cold-fusion fiasco. Those of us who were involved in science in March 1989 (or just paying attention to the news) could not avoid hearing about Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah supposedly producing nuclear fusion at room temperatures. Announced with great fanfare and huge press publicity on March 23, 1989, Pons and Fleischmann claimed that they had run simple electrochemical experiments in the lab that had managed to start a nuclear fusion reaction. Conventional nuclear physics had always argued that fusion (squeezing two or more atoms together to produce another atom) could only be produced at extreme temperatures and pressures, such as the fusion reactions that occur now to drive the heat engine at the core of the Sun. This is why nuclear fusion has only been used for hydrogen bombs and is not yet practical for nuclear energy or other peaceful uses. If Pons and Fleischmann were right, their discovery would revolutionize nuclear physics and possibly solve our energy problems with a source of energy that was cheap to obtain and not as dangerous as the various proposals for fusion reactors. The media immediately ran with the story on a massive scale, so that nobody who paid attention to the news at that time could possibly miss the message. Continue reading…comments (41)