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Warming Up to Cold Fusion

When the August 2004 issue of Popular Mechanics, the magazine for hobbyists and car enthusiasts, ran a cover story claiming cold fusion could allow terrorists to build homemade hydrogen bombs, Park derided the magazine and the science. "A nuke? The cold fusion guys can't brew a cup of tea," the column teased.

Park's reference to tea was a throwback to another cold fusion critic with a humorous edge. Douglas Morrison, a Scottish physicist, was for years the lone critic to attend the annual cold fusion conferences. Every year he would ask the group, "Please can I have a cup of tea?" -- a sardonic way of pointing out that cold fusion had yet to produce even the simplest heating device capable of boiling water. Morrison died in 2001, still without his cup of tea.

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

Park, on the other hand, does not go to the conferences or read the cold fusion literature -- a waste of time, he says.

When Park considers a wild idea, his blue eyes focus on some faraway horizon, as if wondering: Could space aliens exist, does Bigfoot roam the forests, could cold fusion be real? When he refocuses, the answer is always no. What unites these things, Park contends, is people who wish to believe the world is some other way than what it is.

That, for him, is the essence of cold fusion. "Some of the people who are attached to it are attracted to it because it's under some sort of a cloud," Park says. "I don't want to be unfair to them, but I think that's part of what's going on in their own mind." Another problem, he says, is that the people involved aren't that good. "It gets a lot of people that are marginal," Park says. "There aren't any scientists that are deeply involved in this that I would rank among the upper echelon. . . That's going to sound awful to you, but what the heck."

Park corresponds with some cold fusion supporters, including Scott Chubb, a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. Chubb calls Park "a good friend." Park calls Chubb "competent."

Park says Hagelstein is an "unusual case," but points to the connection to Teller, who made positive statements about cold fusion early on. "When the master says it's right, it must just be a matter of showing it."

And some cold fusion advocates, says Park, are flat-out crazy, undermining whatever respect the field may have.

But he did not oppose the DOE review. "I would say they're reviewing it because these guys are now playing by the rules," Park says, citing Chubb and others, who have started to give papers at American Physical Society conferences.

The review might even be a good thing, he suggests. "Maybe there is something there, some funny reaction going on." Park pauses, staring off for a moment. "If there is, I'll make another prediction. If there is, it may solve some puzzles, but it won't be important."

"Or it may be bad science," he adds.

Most nuclear physicists are even more pessimistic about cold fusion. Richard Garwin, 76, is a fellow emeritus at IBM's Watson Research Center and a member of the Jasons. He was on the original DOE review panel, and as a young man did critical design work for Teller's hydrogen bomb. His annoyance with cold fusion is based on visits to various labs. What he finds, in some, are basic mistakes, and in others, the potential for mistakes. "People who can't do a good sophomore experiment are suddenly free to suggest that the discrepancies in their results come from unexplained, basic, earth-shaking, heat-producing phenomena," Garwin gripes in an e-mail about one French lab he visited in 2002.

After a 1993 visit to McKubre's lab, Garwin and a fellow scientist wrote a report to the Pentagon, complimenting SRI on its serious and competent work. While Garwin found no huge blunder in McKubre's experiments, he saw a host of possible problems, ranging from false signals in the equipment to simple measurement errors. Asked to summarize his technical report, Garwin replies with a characteristically brief e-mail: "Did not support any finding of 'excess heat.' "

As for Hagelstein, Garwin says he isn't interested in reviewing the MIT scientist's theories. A smart theorist can explain anything, even mistakes, Garwin says. And why bother? "There is no sense having a theory if there is nothing to explain."

HAGELSTEIN AND MCKUBRE ACKNOWLEDGE THAT COLD FUSION HAS ATTRACTED ITS SHARE OF ODDBALLS. "There are a bunch of people who attend the conferences and have otherwise excellent reputations, who have bought into this so heavily that they've lost their sense of reason or sense of judgment," McKubre says.

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