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Warming Up to Cold Fusion

"If I had spat on cold fusion back in March 1989, along with everyone else," Hagelstein says, "then I would have funding, I would have had papers published, I would have been successful. Lots of good things would have happened."

But he didn't. Why?


MIT researcher Peter Hagelstein works on new models to describe cold fusion reactions. (Photograph by Sarah Ross Wauters)

"Because it wouldn't have been the right thing to do," he says.

McKubre and Hagelstein come off as the consummate odd couple of science. McKubre, the optimist; Hagelstein, the pessimist. The charismatic New Zealander, the geeky physicist. McKubre talks about late nights at cold fusion meetings, drinking whiskey with colleagues. Hagelstein doesn't touch anything stronger than lemonade. It's a friendship forged in 15 years of scientific warfare. Hagelstein describes the mainstream scientific community as "mafias" that promote and publish their friends' work, unwilling to accept new ideas. "From time to time there will be wild claims that will be wrong," he says. "Let's accept that, instead of destroying the careers of the folks who either say such things or work on such things. This is a normal part of the process, too."

As Hagelstein explains it, leading physicists came out swiftly and prematurely against cold fusion. A prominent physicist at Caltech said Pons and Fleischmann were "suffering from delusions." William Happer, a Princeton professor, called them "incompetent boobs."

Just days after the infamous Utah announcement, Hagelstein presented possible theories for cold fusion, and MIT applied for patents on his behalf. Some scientists openly ridiculed his theories. And cold fusion, despite his support, was attacked the next month at a Jasons meeting he attended. Hagelstein remembers Happer, then chairman of the Jasons, telling him to choose between cold fusion and his membership in the group. Hagelstein resigned.

Happer says he never told Hagelstein he had to leave the Jasons. "I do remember telling him: 'Look, Peter, why get messed up with this field? It's going to be nothing but a tar baby. You could make a great career in physics.' He didn't want to hear it.

"I feel bad about it . . . Peter . . . had a tremendous future ahead of him, I thought," Happer says. "He's still well known, but he could have been a greater man than he is."

Hagelstein says his acceptance of cold fusion was by no means immediate. "Sometimes I was pretty sure that it was real, and sometimes I was convinced that it was all junk," he writes in an e-mail. It took several years before he was convinced. "At this point, there are far too many results, of many different types, that constitute an argument that is very strong. There is no going back."

Cold fusion has, if nothing else, taught Hagelstein to be flexible. As new experiments emerged, his theories evolved. For almost every strange result, he came up with a new theory for how cold fusion worked. But he has tossed aside almost as many theories as there have been experiments.

As cold fusion research limped forward, Hagelstein faced a series of personal reverses. He has tenure at MIT, but he never made full professor. When his funding ran out, he eventually lost his lab space, his secretary, even his office. He has suffered from depression, which he attributes to his experience with cold fusion, but also downplays it. "What's more important," he asks, "me taking a little grief or if, by my actions, I could make a difference in the world?"

The SRI summer intern, Jessica, provides her own take on Hagelstein's experience. Jessica, it turns out, is his daughter, a 20-year-old chemistry student at MIT. She was 5 when Pons and Fleischmann hit the covers of Newsweek and Time, and she literally grew up with cold fusion. She describes her father as a gifted pedagogue, popular among his students at MIT and also dedicated to his cold fusion work. She recalls visiting colleges with her father, who would sit down in the library, open his laptop and work on theories, while she toured the campus alone. This consuming passion has left its mark. "My whole life growing up," she says, her father "was always really sad about everything."

Hagelstein today remains the best-known name in the cold fusion community. And that's why in April 2003, he wrote directly to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to request a new review. By November, the DOE had decided to do it, agreeing that after 15 years it was reasonable to review the progress of work in the field. The August review was limited to a single question, according to McKubre: Is the work surrounding cold fusion legitimate science? A positive answer -- even short of a ringing endorsement -- would finally lift the stigma, McKubre has said. It would also "loosen the purse strings" among potential funders. As of last month, the Department of Energy was saying that the review would be released by the end of the year.

THE OFFICES OF THE AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY, a bastion of mainstream science, take up a corner of the National Press Building in downtown Washington. Amid the myriad foreign news agencies on the 10th floor, Bob Park, director of APS public information, and enemy of cold fusion, writes his weekly column, "What's New."

Park's office, not unlike his writing, is filled with strange things. Magazines about aliens lie next to physics textbooks, and next to those, books on electromagnetic healing. Park uses his savage wit to ridicule everything from the international space station and missile defense to alien abduction and cold fusion. His weekly column is distributed, by his rough estimate, to 40,000 subscribers.


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