Cold Fusion

I remember reading this Wired article in 1998 suggesting that the “debunking” of cold fusion may have been way premature.  Last night, 60 Minutes did a pretty convincing piece claiming that more than 20 labs around the world have reported “excess heat” from cold fusion experiments:

Click here for the full story. Watch here.

It’s interesting to me that the best skeptic they could find on the subject (Richard Garwin) was thoroughly unconvincing, simply asserting that there must be a measurement problem, without he himself daring to go measure.  You’d think it would be worth a looksy.  More interesting still was the independent expert in measuring energy (Rob Duncan) who came in as a total skeptic and came out as a believer.

But my favorite part of the story is near the end when Fleischmann (co-discoverer of cold fusion) appears to be having both a literal and figurative last laugh.  Man, what a bad beat he and Pons got.

Besides Garwin, who are the biggest outspoken skeptics these days?  What do you think, is the effect real?  Do Fleischmann and Pons deserve a Nobel?

  • Torsten

    Well at least one skeptic physicist, Bob Park, wrote before the airing of the program that he knew of at least 3 scientists who were interviewed who were not included in the program.

    One could make the argument that it makes more intriguing viewing if the program is slightly one-sided. It gets your dander up that Pons and Fleischmann got a bad beat.

    A more even-handed presentation leaves you with cognitive dissonance.

  • ace

    Garwin certainly doesn’t come across as open minded. Wanting something to work 100% of the time when it isn’t even understood seems wrong.

    How tragic for the world if this could have been perfected 15 years ago but wasn’t because scientists couldn’t risk their careers working on something so thoroughly ridiculed…

    @Torsten..can you link me to the Bob Park information?

  • Torsten

    Here’s a bit of today’s diatribe:

    Last Sunday’s edition of the CBS News program 60 Minutes was titled “Race to Fusion.” It was 1989, Fleischmann and Pons are shown with the “cold fusion” test tube that would have killed them had they been right. Because they lived, the race was called off. Michael McKubre of SRI apparently didn’t get the memo; he just kept doing it over and over for 20 years.

    Lucky for him there’s still no fusion, but he says he does get heat – except when he doesn’t. How does it work? He hasn’t a clue, but he showed a video cartoon of deuterium defusing through palladium and said it might be fusion. In fact McKubre called it “the most powerful source of energy known to man.” Whew! But wait, Dick Garwin did a fusion experiment 60 years ago; it worked all too well. Garwin thinks McKubre is mistaken.

    Just about every physicist agrees, so the American Physical Society was asked to name an independent scientist to examine the claims of Energetics Technology, according to 60 Min correspondent Scott Pelley. An APS statement issued Wed. says this is totally false, and the APS does not endorse the cold fusion claims on 60 Min. (Aside: This morning I thought I should watch the video on the 60 Min web site one more time. Drat! CBS took it off. No matter, there’s a full transcript. Uh oh! The part where CBS says the APS picked Rob Duncan to look into the ET SuperWave is gone. CBS can change history? My God, time travel! Now that is powerful.)

  • Methinks he dost protest too much. As far as I’m concerned, we should be dumping millions of dollars into this at the national level and determine once and for all whether there’s anything to it. The question is an empirical one, not a theoretical one, and the naysayers need to step aside and let the believers have a credible shot. If they fail, oh well. But the upside is too massive not to take a swing just because it upsets the physics apple cart.

  • Torsten

    Hmm. That’s what the homeopaths say too! We just need more research to show that it works. We don’t have any prima facie reason why it should work, but pour $ into it and we’ll show you. And if it upsets the medical establishment, so what…

    Seems to me there are so many other areas of research that *do* have a compelling basis. Or, do you believe that the rationale for cold fusion is compelling?

    What I’m hearing is we should pursue cold fusion because if it did really work, it would be amazing.

  • acebailey

    I think the difference between testing the efficacy of homeopathic medicine and cold fusion is orders of magnitude. It might take decades to see if various healing compounds work…and they may work differently in different people. To attempt to replicate the cold fusion experiments is comparatively easy.

    Surely for $1mm 10 different labs can set up what the Israeli’s have done and if more than a couple of them get the same results then it’s time to rethink. This could be done in six months. And the puny investment vs the potential return is a rounding error.

    For tens of thousands of years people didn’t know how gravity worked but it didn’t stop them from utilizing it to roll boulders down on enemies etc.

  • @Torsten,

    Yes, what I’m saying is that I believe there to be enough evidence that on a risk-adjusted cost-benefit analysis, cold fusion research has a big ROI.

    In contrast homeopathy is nothing like cold fusion. For one, homeopathy does not have the promise of simultaneously revolutionizing the economy, forestalling the coming energy crisis and healing the damage we are doing to the global environment. For another, homeopathy can “work” based purely on a placebo effect (cold fusion can’t) and since homeopathy is a fraction of the cost of many equally dubious yet “scientific” treatments (which often have deleterious side effects that homeopathy does not). Finally, homeopathy has always had, and continues to have, its day in court, as it’s used by millions of people daily. We don’t need to fund research on it, just try it for yourself. You can’t try cold fusion for yourself to power your home yet, there needs to be research to get the technology to that point, assuming the phenomenon is legit.

    I’m not saying that I believe homeopathy works beyond placebo effects, or that I would use it to treat any of my own conditions, but rather that it’s a harmless, impactless folly that doesn’t deserve public funding. The opposite is true for cold fusion.

  • Torsten

    What if folks with swine flu treat themselves with homeopathic remedies and nothing else? Is that “harmless, impactless, folly”?

  • Torsten

    @RafeFurst, you suggest “we should be dumping millions of dollars into this at the national level.” I take the last two words to mean government-funded. This may be a moot point, as U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center *has* conducted research and apparently still is. I can’t say how many millions they have spent. They have some interesting results; now they just need to see if they can reproduce them…

    Certainly, there are labs in different parts of the world conducting research. The potential financial gain if LENR does work is a powerful incentive for commercial enterprise, *if it seems at all compelling*.

    And there’s the rub.

    Carl Sagan once said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Even the LENR researchers concede the theory is lacking. That might be OK if the consistent empirical results made up for that.

    Sometimes the lack of a theory obfuscates and hinders the scientific process. The existing laws of physics are pretty good at explaining most of the phenomena we encounter. If you approach LENR/cold fusion as something extra-physical, then you stand the risk of making errors, IMHO. If you are measuring cosmic-ray signals and using that as evidence for cold fusion, as apparently happened in the early days of cold fusion research, it might be because you threw out basic physics and a theoretical basis.

  • Torsten

    On similarities between homeopathy and cold fusion.

    1. If it worked, homeopathy could save billions (trillions?) in health care expenses. OK, I concede cold fusion could potentially save even more, but billions saved is a lot of money! Why are we ignoring homeopathy (asked very tongue in cheek)?

    2. Homeopathic practitioners and researchers claim that it works (beyond placebo), even while acknowledging (at least some of them) that the theory is a bit far-fetched (memory of water, theory of opposites, etc). Ditto for cold fusion (“it works, but we don’t know why”). In both cases: “it’s an empirical problem”

    3. Homeopathy enthusiasts claim gov’t research necessary because pharma giants not motivated and the scientific community has dismissed it. Fed gov’t should get involved in cold fusion research, because scientific community has dismissed it.

    4. The existing homeopathic research is not compelling. The existing cold fusion research is not compelling. Ok, I concede: it’s not compelling to the broad scientific community. If you are able to present repeatable research findings for either homeopathy or cold fusion, the scientific community is going to stand at attention.

    A final thought: why not invest in psychokinesis and skip the whole fossil fuel/cold fusion folderol?

  • @Torsten,

    I just don’t think the analogy between homeopathy and cold fusion is strong enough to justify the comparison for the reasons I already outlined. This is a case of orders of magnitude difference in impact, plus I don’t think you’ve characterized correctly the amount of real scientific support/evidence in cold fusion vs homeopathy.

    How about a friendly wager? It could be based on just cold fusion results (you’ll give me odds, right?) or cold fusion results vs. homeopathy results. I’m fairly flexible on how you’d word it, we just have to come to the right price.