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Cold Fusion Teaches a Basic Research Lesson

COLD fusion has gone very cold indeed. Widespread skepticism of the claim was strongly reinforced by research reported this past spring. What is worse, the situation has turned nasty, with the original claimants bringing an unwarranted threat of legal action to force withdrawal of that negative report and with strong suspicions of fraud in some key experiments.

Scientists cannot yet completely rule out the claimed phenomenon. But the whole case is certain to become a classic example of the damage that scientific research can suffer when greed takes precedence over established scientific procedure.

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B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and his British colleague, Martin Fleischmann of the University of South Hampton, astounded the world in March 1989 by announcing that they were producing fusion in a jar. By running electric currents between palladium and platinum electrodes in a solution containing deuterium (double heavy hydrogen) they claimed deuterium atoms pack closely enough in one of the electrodes for fusion to take place.

From the beginning, the work of Drs. Pons and Fleischmann has been shrouded in at least partial secrecy in order to protect patent rights. Research at other laboratories around the world has produced mixed results. Many leading laboratories can't find the phenomenon at all. Some others claim to have seen at least some evidence of it.

Meanwhile the State of Utah provided funds to set up the National Cold Fusion Institute at the University of Utah to pursue the Pons and Fleischmann work. But the US Congress did not provide funding sought by the university. And a special Department of Energy panel recommended against funding cold-fusion research last year.

The University of Utah subsequently asked Michael Salamon, associate professor of physics, to check on the institute's research. Last March 29, Dr. Salamon and nine co-authors reported in Nature magazine that they could find no sign of the telltale gamma rays that would indicate fusion. This was widely interpreted as strong evidence against the cold-fusion claims.

A lawyer representing Pons and Fleischmann demanded retraction of the paper under threat of a law suit. This caused a storm of protest both from the university faculty and from interested scientists generally. The lawyer later apologized.

Then the Utah faculty discovered that university president Chase N. Peterson had covered up a grant of $500,000 in university funds to the cold-fusion institute by calling it a gift from an anonymous outside donor. Mr. Peterson admitted this was a mistake in judgment. He now has announced his resignation, partly because of loss of faculty confidence over this incident.

Meanwhile, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's weekly journal, Science, published a lengthy report June 15 detailing strong suspicions that some research at Texas A&M University, which seemingly confirms cold fusion, is tainted by fraud. This, together with the report by Texas A&M nuclear chemist Kevin Wolf that some of his seemingly positive results were due to contamination, casts more doubt on the whole cold-fusion phenomenon.

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Whatever the final scientific judgment may be, cold fusion has already taught a basic lesson. Poor judgment and desire for commercial gain have distorted the investigation from the start. Basic scientific research must, primarily, be a search for knowledge.

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