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.
9/20/08 — 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…