February 27, 2007

Today's New York Times' article by Kenneth Chang on "table-top" fusion research marked a milestone. Reading it, I just had to grin from ear to ear. To be sure, the article left out a lot of important material -- and begged a few pretty significant questions it did not address. Nonetheless, Chang's welcome coverage raised, albeit a bit obliquely, a key question I've focused on for many years now: are big money and old paradigms holding back new energy research, particularly in applied physics?

Chang does a fine service by pointing out some of the many ways a handful of iconoclastic scientists are trying to buck the physics establishment and achieve nuclear fusion without a monstrously expensive tokamak reactor. He even found a few top-notch scientists who are willing to go out on a limb in support of what he calls "maverick" research. Previous claims regarding table top fusion have been hotly dismissed -- pardon the pun -- by the vast majority of nuclear physicists, who generally contend that it's impossible to overcome the columb barrier without a more massive input of power than can be achieved using a few beakers, some heavy water and garden variety electrical current. Nonetheless, over the years more than a few scientists, some with pretty impressive credentials, claim to have accomplished just that, starting with Pons and Fleischmann in 1989, a legion of their followers in the years after that and, more recently, Rusi Taleyarkhan. Although these experiments were not all the same, ranging from so-called "cold fusion" (a misnomer, by the way, since the phenomenon always involved reports of excess heat, the phrase was coined instead to distinguish the Pons Fleischmann work from the blazingly "hot" tokamak reactors) to sonoluminescence, championed most recently by Taleyarkhan.

In all these cases, though, the most important issue, which was highlighted again by today's story, is why on earth can't we get to the bottom of these controversies? Given the stakes involved and the need for clean energy and scientific progress, why oh why don't we have a sound, national, well-funded, inclusive, transparent effort that takes a hard look at ALL the table-top fusion claims that have been made, ranging from low energy nuclear reactions to the more recent bubble fusion claims, and systematically determine what is real and what is not real?

It would be pretty simple, it would seem, to get the scientists who claim they have found new ways to produce cheap and clean energy in a room with skeptics and perform the needed experiments over and over again until the results are clear beyond any shadow of a doubt and we can end the "can so" "can not" debate about table-top fusion. Instead, what we've seen, what I have personally seen for nearly two decades, is a war of words, blatant character assassination, heavy handed politics and a lack of funding and investment in the open and carefully controlled research programs that would settle these questions.

That's why today's long overdue New York Times article was such a breakthrough. With any luck, perhaps other publications will be more willing to take a hard look at whether new energy science is being held back by big money, old paradigms, vested interests and a physics-science culture that rewards obedient thinking. I don't know the answer to that question. But, based on the research and reporting I've done on this topic over the years, I continue to think it needs to be asked.

9/25/07 -- ADDENDUM: Here's a link to Wired's latest cold fusion coverage. It's so nice to have a little more company on this beat.

9/20/08 -- ADDENDUM: Addendum as of August, 2008: A Purdue University panel of inquiry ruled against Professor Taleyarkhan earlier this month, stripping him of his rank and title. I continue to find his story astonishing. If the events did unfold the way Purdue officials now report, then why on earth did it take them so long to discover the facts and make them public? This has the makings of one heck of a screenplay...

February 22, 2007
League for Innovation OER Links

Here is a link to the back-up material for my presentation on Open Education Resources (OER) at the League for Innovation in the Community Colleges CEO/Board Chair retreat in San Diego. These materials were prepared for a different meeting (ACCT) and cover OER policy development in more detail.

February 14, 2007

Run, don't walk, get a good seat and get ready to laugh til you cry if you ever have a chance to see former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe speak. I had my first chance to hear him give a talk earlier this week and he was, in a word, okay two words, simply fantastic. Brilliant, insightful and funny as can be. Comfortable in his own skin. He made me wish he was running for president, or that someone was running for president with his wit and ability to cut to the heart of a topic with humor and humility. It reminded me of the late, great Rep. Morris Udall, who would have been a wonderful president, and who surely would have been re-elected, had he not been beaten for the nomination that year by former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter whose presidency was far worse than many of my fellow democrats now remember. If you can't see McAuliffe speak, then read his book. It will remind you what politics can be when people with brains have the courage to say what is on their mind. Terry McAuliffe for President.

February 12, 2007

By the way, if anyone is traveling to Washington, D.C. you should ask if they have finished the interior renovations before you pay a penny to stay at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. The loud hammering in the room just above me started at 7AM. Meanwhile, the bathroom sink filled up with sewage from someone else's room. After complaining ("I'm sorry," they said, "we have a very aggressive construction schedule.") the management offered me a coupon for a free breakfast and, when that did not mollify me, finally agreed to knock $250 off my bill. I would have much preferred a quiet place to sleep and a bathroom sink that worked. I realize they have to do renovations from time to time. But surely they could find a better way to get that done if they put the needs of their guests first. What's more, they must have known about this problem before I checked in. Be warned.

February 10, 2007

I'm in Washington, D.C. today, attending my first meeting as a newly appointed Associate Member of the Association of Community College Trustees' (ACCT) Public Policy Committee (whew, try typing that sometime). The organization has an important national voice on community college and overall economic development issues. There were, I dunno, maybe 25 people in the room, including a community college friendly deputy assistant Secretary of Education. The meeting was pretty short, though, which surprised me since this important group meets just twice a year. Nonetheless, near the end of a jam-packed 90-minute session, thanks largely to the skill and kindness of Committee Chair Brunswick Community College District (North Carolina) Trustee Lynda Stanley, I was able to formally introduce the committee to Open Education Resources (OER). Next up: getting the subject placed on the agenda for the next committee meeting, in six months, at which time members will be able to review the proceedings of the Federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid's March 5, 2007 hearing in Santa Clarita, CA, which will include a presentation on OER from me and Foothill-De Anza Chancellor Dr. Martha Kanter. I'm hoping all that will lead the ACCT Public Policy Committee toward endorsing action at the federal level to facilitate and stimulate the use of OER, including by removing unnecessary and counterproductive regulations, when necessary.

And so we continue to push the OER rock up the higher education policy hill, sensing that it is getting ever so much nearer the top. Meanwhile, it's pretty darn cold here...

February 08, 2007

Just hours after I posted this, Purdue finally announced the results of its investigation into this matter, exonerating Dr. Taleyarkhan.

On a related note, as a journalist who has covered this controversial topic I feel a personal debt of gratitude to Science magazine editor Donald Kennedy, who recently backed up my claim (made here and here) that, in this case, big money and old paradigms are poisoning the atmosphere of free and open inquiry on which science depends. Here is what Dr. Kennedy recently told the BBC:

"Fusion research is a heavily contested field, both because there are reputations to be made and because the amount of federal dollars spent on it is quite large and people want their share of that research support. So don't ever expect this to be a peaceful domain in science, it's not going to be."

Boy, he sure got that right.

That's all the more reason for scrutiny from the press -- which has virtually ignored this long-running story despite the enormous stakes. Without such scrutiny we have no way of knowing whether the billions of taxpayer dollars we are spending on fusion research are being flushed down a group-think drain. After all, it has always seemed pretty darn strange to me that we are still getting most of our energy using the same highly profitable but centrally controlled, polluting, fossil fuel technologies that were in use 100 years ago -- when everything else around us has changed so dramatically.

So, the question now is the same one I first asked nearly two decades ago in my initial coverage of this subject: are big money and old paradigms stopping new energy science dead in its tracks -- or holding it back? That's a question I'd be asking again today if I were in charge of a major news desk. But then, the big news outlets, many of which depend heavily on advertising from the oil industry, have so many more important stories to cover, like whether or not Britney Spears is wearing underpants.

Addendum as of August, 2008: A second Purdue University panel of inquiry ruled against Taleyarkhan earlier this month. I continue to find his story astonishing. If the events did unfold the way Purdue officials now report, then why on earth did it take them so long to discover the facts and make them public? This has the makings of one heck of a screenplay...

February 06, 2007

Like many others, I was intrigued when Science magazine published a controversial paper in 2002 by Dr. Rusi Taleyarkhan, then a scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who claimed that nuclear fusion had been achieved in a desk-top device through a process known as sonoluminescence. Taleyarkhan was quickly recruited by Purdue University, where he took a new job. Shortly thereafter, two colleagues at Purdue who say they were unable to replicate his work went public with charges of scientific and professional misconduct. In two interviews I found about the charges, Taleyarkhan and several of his collaborators strongly defends his work (as he also does here).

As a result, early last year officials at Purdue University ordered an investigation and, in keeping with the requirements of the scientific process, promised to make the findings public. In the interim, Dr. Taleyarkhan's reputation was certainly tarnished. Purdue has since announced that it will keep the results of its now-completed investigation secret.

As Doug Natelson puts it:

It would appear that Purdue University has done a thorough and careful investigation of claims of research misconduct in the case of Rusi Taleyarkhan, the scientist who claims to have used sonoluminescence of deuterated acetone to produce table-top-scale fusion. In the spirit of scientific openness and transparency, Purdue has decided to not make public the result of its investigation. So, either Taleyarkhan is legit, and Purdue is content to let his reputation suffer, or they think he's a fraud, but are content not to tell the scientific community, or some mysterious third alternative. What on earth is Purdue's administration thinking with this? Did they assume no one would notice?

Indeed.

See update to this post here.