Friday, 25 December 2015

My Dinner with Andrea

This is an excerpt of an essay recently published in Aeon magazine as The Cold Fusion Horizon. Aeon's copyeditors did a pretty good job – except on the title! :-( – but they omitted quite a few of the links I'd included in my text. I've reproduced the relevant paragraphs here in their original form, to make my sources clear. There's a link at the end to the full piece in Aeon.

My Dinner with Andrea – Cold Fusion, Sane Science, and the Reputation Trap

Four years ago a physicist friend of mine made a joke on Facebook about the laws of physics being broken in Italy. He had two pieces of news in mind. One was a claim by the Gran Sasso-based OPERA team to have discovered super luminal neutrinos. The other concerned an engineer from Bologna called Andrea Rossi, who claimed to have cold fusion reactor producing commercially useful amounts of heat.

Why were these claims so improbable? The neutrinos challenged a fundamental principle of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, that nothing can travel faster than light. While cold fusion, or LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions), as it is also called, is the controversial idea popularised by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons in 1989, that nuclear reactions similar to those in the sun could also occur at or close to room temperature, under certain conditions. Fleischmann and Pons claimed to have found evidence that such reactions could occur in palladium loaded with deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen). A few other physicists, including Sergio Focardi at Bolonga, claimed similar effects with nickel and ordinary hydrogen. But most were highly sceptical, and the field “subsequently gained a reputation as pathological science,” as Wikipedia puts it. Even the believers had not claimed commercially useful quantities of excess heat, as Rossi now reported from his "E-Cat" reactor.

However, it turned out that my physicist friend and I disagreed about which of these unlikely claims was the less improbable. He thought the neutrinos, on the grounds that the work had been done by respectable scientists, rather than by a lone engineer with a somewhat chequered past. I thought Rossi, on grounds of the physics. Superluminal neutrinos would overturn a fundamental tenet of relativity, but all Rossi needed was a previously unnoticed channel to a reservoir of energy whose existence is not in doubt. We know that huge amounts of energy are locked up in metastable nuclear configurations, trapped like water behind a dam. There’s no known way to get useful access to that energy, at low temperatures. But – so far as I knew – there was no "watertight" argument that no such method exists.

My friend agreed with me about the physics. (So has every other physicist I’ve asked about it since.) But he still put more weight on the sociological factors – reputation, as it were. So we agreed to bet a dinner on the issue. My friend would pay if Rossi turned out to have something genuine, and I would pay if the neutrinos came up trumps. We’d split the bill if, as then seemed highly likely, both claims turned out to be false.

It soon became clear that I wasn’t going to lose. The neutrinos were scratched from the race, when it turned out that someone on OPERA’s team of respectable scientists had failed to tighten an optical lead correctly.

Rossi, however, has been going from strength to strength. While it is fair to say that the jury is still out, there has been a lot of good news (for my hopes of a free dinner) in the past couple of years. There have been two reports (in 2013 and 2014) of tests of Rossi’s device by teams of Swedish and Italian physicists whose scientific credentials are not in doubt, and who had access to one of his devices for extended periods (a month, for the second test). Both reports claimed levels of excess heat far beyond anything explicable in chemical terms, in the testers’ view. (The second report also claimed isotopic shifts in the composition of the fuel.) Since then there have been several reports of duplications by experimenters in Russia and China, guided by details in the 2014 report.

More recently, Rossi was granted a US patent for one of his devices, previously refused on the grounds that insufficient evidence had been provided that the technique worked as claimed. There are credible reports that a 1MW version of his device, producing many times the energy that it consumes, has been on trial in an industrial plant in Florida for months, with good results so far. And Rossi’s US backer and licensee, Tom Darden – a respectable North Carolina-based industrialist, with a long track record of investment in pollution-reducing industries – has been increasingly willing to speak out in support of the LENR technology field. (Another investor, UK-based Woodford Funds, reports that it conducted "a rigorous due diligence process that has taken two and half years.")

Finally, very recently, there’s a paper by two senior Swedish physicists, Rickard Lundin and Hans Lidgren, proposing a mechanism for Rossi’s results, inspired in part by the second of two test reports mentioned above. Lunden and Lidgren say that the "experimental results by Rossi and co-workers and their E-Cat reactor provide the best experimental verification of the … process" they propose.

As I say, I don’t claim that this evidence is conclusive, even collectively. It’s still conceivable that there is fraud involved, as many sceptics have claimed; or some large and persistent measurement error. Yet as David Bailey and Jonathan Borwein point out here and here, these alternatives are becoming increasingly unlikely – which is great news for my dinner prospects! (Bailey and Borwein have also interviewed Rossi, here.)

Moreover, Rossi is not the only person claiming commercially relevant results from LENR. Another prominent example is Robert Godes, of Brillouin Energy, profiled in this recent Norwegian newspaper piece. If you want to dismiss Rossi on the grounds that he’s claiming something impossible, one of these explanations needs to work for Godes, too.

You can see why I’ve been salivating at the thought of My Dinner With Andrea, as I’ve been calling it (h/t Louis Malle), in honour of the man who will be the absent guest of honour, if my physicist friend is paying. And it is not only my stomach that has been becoming increasingly engaged with this fascinating story. I’m a philosopher of science, and my brain has been finding it engrossing, too.

What do I mean? Well, it hasn’t escaped my attention that there’s a lot more than a free dinner at stake. Imagine that someone had a working hot fusion reactor in Florida – assembled, as Rossi’s 1MW device is reported to be, in a couple of shipping containers, and producing several hundred kilowatts of excess power, month after month, in apparent safety. That would be huge news, obviously. (As several people have noticed, a new clean source of energy would be really, really useful, right about now!)

But if the potential news is this big, why haven’t most of you heard about Rossi, or Godes, or any of the other people who have been working in the area (for many years, in some cases)? This is where things get interesting, from a philosopher of science’s point of view.

As a question about sociology, the answer is obvious. Cold fusion is dismissed as pseudoscience, the kind of thing that respectable scientists and science journalists simply don’t talk about (unless to remind us of its disgrace). As a recent Fortune piece puts it, the Fleischmann and Pons "experiment was eventually debunked and since then the term cold fusion has become almost synonymous with scientific chicanery." In this case, the author of the article is blithely reproducing the orthodox view, even in the lead-in to his interview with Tom Darden – who tells him a completely different story (and has certainly put his money where his mouth is).

Ever since 1989, in fact, the whole subject has been largely off-limits, in mainstream scientific circles and the scientific media. Authors who do put their head above the parapet are ignored or rebuked. Most recently, Lunden and Lidgren report that they submitted their paper to the journal Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, but that the editors declined to have it reviewed; and that even the non-reviewed preprint archive,, refused to accept it.

So, as a matter of sociology, it is easy to see why Rossi gets little serious attention; why an interview with Tom Darden associates him with scientific chicanery; and why, I hope, some of you are having doubts about me, for writing about the subject in a way that indicates that I am prepared to consider it seriously. (If so, hold that attitude. I want to explain why I take it to reflect a pathology in our present version of the scientific method. My task will be easier if you are still suffering from the symptoms.)

Sociology is one thing, but rational explanation another. It is very hard to extract from this history any satisfactory justification for ignoring recent work on LENR. After all, the standard line is that the rejection of cold fusion in 1989 turned on the failure to replicate the claims of Fleischmann and Pons. Yet if that were the real reason, then the rejection would have to be provisional. Failure to replicate couldn’t possibly be more than provisional – empirical science is a fallible business, as any good scientist would acknowledge. In that case, well done results claiming to overturn the failure to replicate would certainly be of great interest.

Perhaps the failure to replicate wasn’t crucial after all? Perhaps we knew on theoretical grounds alone that cold fusion was impossible? But this would make nonsense of the fuss made at the time and since, about the failure to reproduce the Fleischmann and Pons results. And in any case, it is simply not true. As I said at the beginning, what physicists actually say (in my experience) is that although LENR is highly unlikely, we cannot say that it is impossible. We know that the energy is in there, after all.

No doubt one could find some physicists who would claim it was impossible. But they might like to recall the case of Lord Rutherford, greatest nuclear physicist of his day, who famously claimed that "anyone who expects a source of power from transformation of … atoms is talking moonshine" – the very day before Leo Szilard, prompted by newspaper reports of Rutherford’s remarks, figured out the principles of the chain reaction that makes nuclear fission useable as an energy source, peaceful or otherwise.

This is not to deny that there is truth in the principle popularised by Carl Sagan, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We should certainly be very cautious about such surprising claims, unless and until we amass a great deal of evidence. But this is not a good reason for ignoring such evidence in the first place, or refusing to contemplate the possibility that it might exist. (As Robert Godes said recently: "It is sad that such people say that science should be driven by data and results, but at the same time refuse to look at the actual results.")

Again, there’s a sociological explanation why few people are willing to look at the evidence. They put their reputations at risk by doing so. Cold fusion is tainted, and the taint is contagious – anyone seen to take it seriously risks contamination themselves. So the subject is stuck in a place that is largely inaccessible to reason – a reputation trap, we might call it. People outside the trap won’t go near it, for fear of falling in. "If there is something scientists fear it is to become like pariahs," as Rickard Lundin puts it. People inside the trap are already regarded as disreputable, an attitude that trumps any efforts they might make to argue their way out, by reason and evidence.


Read the rest of this essay at Aeon.