To the Editor:
Edmund Storms (“Professor’s denial of cold fusion phenomenon has detrimental consequences,” 1/13) seems to have misread my Washington Post article, which mentioned only in passing the Cold Fusion episode in 1989 at the University of Utah. I did not characterize the episode as a case of fraud but as an example of scientific “misdeeds.” Moreover, I referred only to the Utah claims, not to all research in cold fusion since then.
The events of 1989 were a low point in the presentation of putatively significant scientific results to both the world of science and the larger public. In March, the scientists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that, in their University of Utah lab, they had achieved at room temperature the type of nuclear-fusion reaction that fuels the sun and fires hydrogen bombs. This astonishing “breakthrough” contradicted the known laws of physics but promised a panacea for our ever-growing national need for an alternate source of energy, not to mention great wealth to those who developed it. Under instructions from President George H. W. Bush, the Department of Energy created an authoritative scientific panel to evaluate the claim, and the Utah legislature responded unanimously to the Utah governor’s offer to provide the researchers with $5 million. Pons and Fleischmann’s initial published paper about their research lacked essential raw data and experimental details. When asked to supply their scientific colleagues with more information, they persistently refused. Other scientists trying to replicate their experiments could only guess at the apparatus they had used.
Eventually, their particular claims were refuted as theoretically unfounded and without experimental support. This is the incident I referred to in my article and it has altogether nothing to do with research since in this field.
Jan. 15, 2006
The writer is a professor of history.