A Hot Topic turns Cold

My first assignment at Nesta was to find an interesting subject for a Hot Topic Event. Going through a few suggestions I came across a grant request to fund research into cold fusion reactors. Little did I know it would expose me to a side of science I didn’t think existed

Scientists, I always believed, pride themselves on their logic and the scientific method. But it became apparent that in the case of cold fusion they let emotion stand in the way of progress, whatever direction that might be in. To understand the controversy and the effects of cold fusion, it’s worth understanding what happened when it was introduced to the world.

The History

Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons decided to test whether chemical processes could result into nuclear reactions. They had some promising initial results in 1989.  According to their calorimetric measurements, heat had radiated from their apparatus and it could only be explained by fusion. Their theory was that they had managed to compress deuterium atoms in a palladium rod so that the atoms fused, releasing heat. They appropriately named their discovery Cold Fusion since “normal” fusion only takes place under extreme temperatures and pressures in the core of stars.

Still at a very early stage of experimentation, but massively excited, they found out that another group of nuclear physicists led by Professor Steven E. Jones were also researching cold fusion and were about to publish. Pons and Fleischmann needed to make a swift decision. Do they wait to complete their experiments and let a discovery that would change the world forever be credited to another group of scientists or risk it and publish with incomplete experimental evidence?

They choose the latter and on 23 March 1989 before their paper was even published the University of Utah organised a televised press conference.

What happened in the days that followed can only be describe as chaos.  Journalists and scientists alike clamoured for details of the invention they were promised would change the world. But information was scarce; Pons and Fleischmann refused to provide anything further and when their paper was finally published, it was filled with inaccuracies.  

Only a few groups out of the many who tried claimed they replicated the results of the original experiment and even those didn’t provide conclusive data. A year went by and when the smoke settled the scientific community seemed to have reached a consensus. Pons and Fleischmann’s claims were not based on solid evidence and their results could not be replicated.

The professors who were once considered experts in their fields had lost their credibility and mainstream science had all but given up on the concept of cold fusion.

That doesn’t mean Cold Fusion has disappeared, it’s just gone underground. With a new name and a desire to leave its stained past behind, Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) has slowly been creeping back into public discussion

Over the last two decades conferences have been taking place all over the world trying to bring together LENR believers and exchange ideas. People such as Andrea Rossi say that they will soon have LENR reactors ready for commercial use. NASA is discussing its uses as an Energy Source for zero carbon aircraft. The US Department of Energy  is now accepting proposals to fund LENR research and Mitsubishi have recently been granted a patent for LENR technology to be used for the transmutation of nuclear waste.

 Despite all these, LENR is still far from a proven concept. It is highly controversial and the main reason for this is that papers that offer positive results are vague about the methods they use and lack solid data. 

The emotional effect

Leaving aside the matter of whether LENR is real or not, I wanted to hold an event on the scientific community’s aversion towards cold fusion – on the attitudes around the science, not the science itself. There was and still is an emotional response, embedded in the scientific community’s psyche, when it comes to Cold Fusion.  Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Julian Schwinger’s efforts to publish his theories on the Pons-Fleischmann experiments.

 "The pressure for conformity is enormous. I have experienced it in editors’ rejection of submitted papers, based on venomous criticism of anonymous referees. The replacement of impartial reviewing by censorship will be the death of science."- from 13 Things that Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time

Julian Schwinger won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for his theory of quantum electrodynamics. The calls of even a man of his stature fell on deaf ears.  

The effect on scientists doesn’t seem to have died down as the years have gone by. The long shadow of events in 1989 seems to have been passed down to the younger generation. I got a sense of this myself from some of the responses I got to my speaker invitations. Despite our efforts to show that we did not want to have a discussion on whether LENR should be taken seriously or not, their unwillingness to even be associated with such as an event was apparent.  

Even science journalists were hesitant about speaking

“Youch – I wouldn’t want to talk about this. And there’s your reaction, right there ;)”

And even writing about it  

  “If we were to write an article about the science of it, it might add an amount of credibility that I’m not comfortable doing while that’s still the case.”

When inviting physicists, I found that they were more inclined to fill their responses with data and evidence that disproves LENR claims. LENR supporters were extremely pleased as they considered the fact that we wanted to hold this event a sign of LENR breaking into the mainstream. Both of these responses ignore the fact that all we wanted to talk about was the emotional effects of the technology and not get caught up on the debate of whether it’s good research or not.

There is no denying that bad science has played a factor in the way people feel towards cold fusion.   The technology might have had a turbulent lifespan, but it has been a long lifespan – the idea refuses to go away. That is what makes it different from other examples of bad science. It is a fair bet to say that it won’t be going anywhere for a while.    


Chrysostomos Meli

Chrysostomos Meli

Chrysostomos Meli

Technology Futures intern

Chrysostomos was the Technology Futures intern in Nesta’s Policy and Research team. His work focused on identifying and researching technological innovations for the Hot Topics events …

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