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Warming Up to Cold Fusion

McKubre often speaks about a company in Israel, Energetics Technologies, that has received a couple of million dollars a year in private support to research cold fusion and has achieved "startling results," producing much higher levels of power and heat than his own experiments. McKubre has visited the lab. "It's the first clear indication that something practical might come out of all this effort," he says.

But the scientist behind the Israeli group is Irving Dardik, a former surgeon, who secured funding from Sidney Kimmel, the billionaire head of Jones Apparel Group Inc. Dardik's state medical license was revoked by New York in the mid-1990s after several patients testified to a review committee that he had promised to cure them of multiple sclerosis using "waveform therapy." The review committee found that Dardik had charged ailing patients as much $100,000 for treatment involving little more than exercise and sports watches.

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

Dardik, according to a patent application he submitted, believes that "all things in the universe are composed of" waves, and that those waves are part of larger waves, in what he calls "superlooping." This "superlooping gives rise to and is matter in motion." He has pursued research tying that theory to treating AIDS, Parkinson's disease and depression. The medical board questioned his use of made-up words such as superlooping and speculated openly about his mental health, describing him as "manic." According to the public records of the proceedings, the board ultimately concluded that he was mentally fit but found him guilty of "fraud and exploitation."

Dardik says the medical establishment was simply intolerant of alternative science. No longer able to practice medicine, he is now applying his waves theory to cold fusion. Dardik would like, at some point, to get his medical license back in New York, but not now, he says; he's too busy with cold fusion. "I don't even have the time."

McKubre and Hagelstein have consulted for Dardik; McKubre has cited Dardik's research to the DOE, now works closely with him and has repeatedly touted the work of Dardik's group.

McKubre seems acutely aware of the strangeness that pervades the field, and he handles challenging questions calmly, seeming at times weary of -- and amused by -- some of his more fervent colleagues. But, in this case, it's easy to wonder if his optimism has gotten the better of him. Although he has acknowledged in an e-mail that "Dardik's ideas must sound mad, and . . . adherence to them is not science based," McKubre has continued to talk up the results of the Israeli research; he argues that the experiments themselves work. Yet endorsing the physics experiments of a medical doctor found to have defrauded sick patients is a serious threat to McKubre's reputation. Asked about Dardik's waveforms, McKubre traces waves along the wall with his hand and begins to talk about Dardik's theories of biological rhythms. He pauses, looking a little embarrassed. He acknowledges that, even to a cold fusion supporter such as himself, the theory requires a certain "leap of faith."

ALONG WITH THE POSSIBILITY OF FINANCIAL AND SCIENTIFIC REWARDS, the DOE review offers cold fusion scientists the hope of one final prize: moral redemption.

While the review was of cold fusion in general, the primary focus was on Hagelstein and McKubre. They chose the material, wrote the review paper and even selected the presenters. Reproducibility remains a nagging issue. While cold fusion proponents now claim better success in re-creating their results from one experiment to the next, Hagelstein acknowledges that their consistency is far from perfect, and some experimental results have never been reproduced. Like McKubre, he holds out the hope that better materials will produce more consistent results down the road. Yet he argues that already there have been enough positive results, from experimentalists he trusts, that at least some of them must be accurate. "I think that things are well past the point that experimental error is a likely possibility," he writes in an e-mail. The scientific method, however, doesn't work that way, Garwin says. As he puts it, it's absurd to claim that experiments that seem to support cold fusion are valid, while those that don't are flawed.

Regardless, Hagelstein says, he has seen enough cold fusion data to convince him that the science is clearly real. The field's acceptance, he maintains, will be simply a matter of the scientific community's looking at the improved experimental results in the future and coming to understand them.

To McKubre, the main reason cold fusion has been belittled all these years is that the mainstream scientists who dug in their heels long ago can't change their minds now: "If it turns out these people are wrong, they're dead. They're scientifically dead."

So, let's say he's right, and the majority of scientists are wrong, and cold fusion does work. What will it take for the critics to accept it? McKubre quotes Max Planck, the father of quantum theory: "Science advances one funeral at a time."

Eternally the optimist, McKubre walked out of the SRI building that August day bouncing like a teenager. He was excited about the review: Maybe it would herald a new era, when the DOE would break its stodgy habits and fund alternative energy. With Hagelstein's help, he said, cold fusion had a chance at redemption.

In fact, he observed, the stigma around cold fusion was already disappearing. "Cold fusion shows up everywhere," he said. "In comic books, in movies and in songs. It is the standard power generator technology of some cartoon characters. It is a fact."

But aren't "facts" like that nothing more than fantasy?

"It's a fantasy fact," he said. "That's nearly as good as reality."

Sharon Weinberger covers Congress and the military for Defense Daily, a trade publication.

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