Cold Fusion

Our existence is entirely dependent on a very large nuclear fusion reactor that's been operating long before we got here and will probably operate long after we are gone. Of course we don't have any control over it, it's 93 million miles away. Controlled nuclear fusion has been the holy grail of high energy physicists for decades. Cheap, safe, plentiful energy based on fusion would change human nature in ways we could not even begin to predict.

Physicists have built expensive, elaborate machines in their attempts to do what our Sun has been doing for a long, long time. The results have not been promising, but the research continues in hopes that the hardest problems will one day be solved. When two chemists suggested that a simple table top experiment was able to achieve nuclear fusion with very low cost, it sent tidal waves accross the high energy landscape.

In 1989, Pons and Fleischmann announced controversial research results dubbed Cold fusion. During that time, I was finishing my physics degree at Maryland. I was also working at the Laboratory for Plasma and Fusion Energy Studies. Needless to say, the faculty and staff at LPFE and the physics department were very interested. What followed next was one of the most provocative experiences I have had the fortune to witness.

Not long after the cold fusion announcement on national news, a notice was placed on a small billboard in one hallway of the physics building. It listed a brief lecture by a physicist to be presented in a 30 seat classroom. The expectation was that a few professors and some students might find the subject interesting. When the time came for the lecture, the classroom was inundated by the entire physics department staff and lots of students. The lecture was quickly moved to the lecture demonstration hall just around the corner. A few graduate students were holding a discussion session at the time. They were summarily ejected in preparation for the deluge of humanity.

Every one of the 500 seats in the lecture hall was filled. The front rows were occupied immediately by the tenured faculty of the physics department, the lords of the manor. They were not just interested, they wanted answers and they wanted them now, they were almost furious. Behind them were lesser professors and graduate students. I was higher up with the riff raff. A few meek chemistry professors snuck in and sat in the back corners near the doors. This was a hostile environment for chemists, so rapid egress was on their mind.

The lecturer was a veteran physicists who was researching the claims by Pons and Fleischmann. He started with the a review of their experiments what had been published. The room was absolutely silent, the lords leaning forward hanging on every word. The lecture then moved to an exploratory phase: could cold fusion have actually worked? Analysis on multiple levels was presented. The lecturer began to show his skepticism, an almost disdain for the work of Pons and Fleischmann. Skepticism sometimes shifted to condescending laughter of the chemists work. Who did these chemists think they were anyway? What do they know about fusion? Physicists had spent millions of dollars over the years and produced meager results. How could these charlatans just show up and steal all the thunder?

Pointed, highly technical question erupted from the audience. What was this value, that factor and so on. Sometimes the questions were answered defiantly by other lords in the front row: "I have calculated that effect, the value is X". This turned from a dry, esoteric lecture to a public lynching by an angry mob. The few chemists in the back remained silent, they dare not identify themselves and suffer the wrath of the lords.

The lecture concluded with the lords convincing themselves that their greatest fears had not been realized. Those underdog chemists had not scored the winning goal and not made fools of the high energy elite. What I witnessed was not completely scientific discovery in action, it was basic human instinct.