Victor J. Stenger
Reality Check in Skeptical Briefs September, 1999
In 1934, Duke University botanist-turned-parapsychologist Joseph Banks Rhine announced that extrasensory perception is a widespread and common mental phenomenon. Rhine made this remarkable discovery after analyzing the data from a few simple card-guessing experiments, easily duplicated by family members across a dining table. The headlines were sensational.
On March 23, 1989, electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and B. Stanley Pons made an announcement of comparable world-shaking, headline-making proportions. In a rudimentary test tube experiment, little more sophisticated than Rhine's dining table exercises, they claimed that the energy of the sun had been harnessed. In one stroke, all the world's energy problems were solved for the foreseeable future.
Fleischmann and Pons said they had achieved "cold fusion," nuclear fusion reactions that occur at room temperature instead of the millions of degrees that conventional physics wisdom said was required. This they claimed to accomplish by squeezing deuterons (nuclei of heavy hydrogen) inside the crystal lattice of the metal palladium so that the deuterons fused into heavier elements, with the release of far more energy than was possible chemically.
J.B. Rhine became an instant media superstar after announcing that he had demonstrated ESP. But he experienced less success in convincing scientific journals to publish his work. The experts called upon to referee his papers raised many questions about statistics, controls against fraud, and replication.
At first Rhine made a serious attempt to answer the criticisms, performing more experiments with increasingly better controls. Unfortunately, the effect seemed to fade as the experiments got better. Under the pressure of the spotlight, he soon bypassed his critics, who were never satisfied anyway. When the Journal of General Psychology rejected a Rhine paper because it was "propagandist" in form, he started a new journal, with himself as co-editor. Through the efforts of Margaret Mead and other notables, parapsychology eventually obtained formal recognition within the American scientific community. However, it has always remained on the fringe--more pseudoscience than science.
Soon after the cold fusion announcement, a series of revelations began squeezing it of any measurable credibility in the eyes of knowledgeable observers. Fleischmann's and Pons' methodology was so questionable, so open to criticism on many fronts, that even had their claims turned out to be valid, many scientists would have been left with a bad taste in their mouths.
In the weeks and months following the press conference, nuclear laboratories all over the world attempted to replicate cold fusion. When none found any sign of the accompanying intense nuclear radiation that was required by known physics, cold fusion proponents suggested that perhaps no radiation is produced. Conventional deuteron fusion was almost certainly not happening. In fact, incontrovertible evidence for this exists: Fleischmann and Pons, at this writing, are still alive! With the huge heat output being claimed, the accompanying nuclear radiation would have killed anyone nearby.
When the evidence for ESP began to diminish with increasing laboratory controls, Rhine interpreted this as a property of the phenomenon--the so-called decline effect. When ESP did not occur with skeptical experts present in the laboratory, it was attributed to the observer effect. When the effect failed to show the expected falloff with distance expected for any physical energy, the distance effect, Rhine concluded that ESP was not a physical phenomenon like electromagnetism. Psychic energy was not conserved.
As its scientific support faded, ESP evolved from what was at first interpreted as a possible natural phenomenon, not necessarily inconsistent with known science, to one that gradually took on all the aspects of the miraculous, capable of violating established natural law. And just as ESP is still pursued today by a small group of true believers, so cold fusion is still promoted on the fringes--despite ten years of failure to be confirmed in any laboratory well-equipped to do so.
Like ESP believers, cold fusion promoters have talked themselves into thinking they have made a revolutionary or even miraculous discovery. At least three violations of well established physics knowledge are called for in cold fusion claims. In particular, the absence of accompanying radiation in cold fusion experiments has been treated, like Rhine's negative results, as a property of a phenomenon to be explained rather than as evidence that the phenomenon simply does not exist.
The most common deuterium fusion reactions emit neutrons. These are not observed. Another reaction, which is ten million times less frequent, produces helium along with a high energy gamma ray photons. These photons are not seen either. Still, this is the reaction that is currently promoted by cold fusion proponents. Somehow helium fusion is favored at room temperature, although no one can imagine why, and happens without any gamma-rays being emitted. That's two miracles, to be added to the fact that the chance of two deuterons separated by atomic distances have about as much a chance of undergoing a nuclear reaction as Elvis's molecules have of re-assembling into Elvis.
Cold fusion theorists claim that the energy normally carried by gamma rays is instead absorbed directly by the palladium lattice as a whole, converting completely into heat with no nuclear radiation. Processes of this sort can in fact happen at low photon energies, where the photon wavelengths are large compared to the distances between atoms and the photons behave as waves rather than as point particles. A beam of visible or infrared light, for example, can transfer energy to an atomic lattice as a whole. However, this will not happen for gamma-ray photons, which will pass right between the atoms in the lattice.To transfer the amount of energy released in one nuclear reaction over interatomic distances, without nuclear radiation, would require energy transfers at tens of thousands of times the speed of light.
The faithful have speculated about the so-called Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox of quantum mechanics and how that may allow for superluminal signal transfer of energy to the lattice. Interestingly, this is the same mechanism invoked by some ESP believers to explain their imagined instantaneous transfer of psychic energy from mind to mind throughout the universe. The holistic field of "cosmic consciousness" that accounts for ESP, the powers of Transcendental Meditation, and the efficacy of homeopathic nostrums is supposedly also responsible for superluminal energy transfer between the atoms of the palladium lattice in cold fusion! In the last issue I warned about investing your retirement funds in any company selling the Casimir effect as a source of "free energy." Don't invest in any selling cold fusion either.