Failure to replicate Pons-Fleischmann 'sustained fire' claim*

Recently [1], [2], Pons and Fleischmann claimed to have elicited a sustained form of the 'fire' phenomenon, normally observed only following lightning strikes or prolonged periods of high temperature, by artificial means. Attempts to replicate this process in our laboratory have produced no evidence for the existence of a sustained 'fire' process. Alternative explanations for the observed 'fires' are discussed.

We built six 'bonfires' using twigs and branches of mixed sizes according to the recipe of Pons and Fleischmann, from the precise type of tree specified in their paper (platanus occidentalis), and to each structure applied an activated MATCH device in the manner indicated. In no case was a sustained thermal process observed. The maximum period before the flames that appeared upon ignition died away was 67.4 seconds, while in two cases the flames died out in less than 10 seconds.

We suspect that the 'sustained fire' observation of Pons and Fleischmann was the result of contamination of their 'bonfire' by stray MATCH devices, whose ignition would help sustain the process in a chain reaction. Alternatively, they may have failed to notice a lightning strike, a well-known alternative cause of the 'fire' phenomenon.

Our conclusion is that the results obtained by Pons and Fleischmann (and by others claiming positive results) are almost certainly the consequence of careless experimentation, or even in some cases fraud. The claim that 'bonfires', ignited according to some special prescription using MATCH devices, can be used as a continuing source of heat, is a delusion.

Editorial note: following circulation of a preprint of this paper, and reports of failure by others to replicate bonfire ignition, the authors retreated to the English Lake District where they spent much of their time observing sheep. In a paper accepted for publication, they demonstrate that the behaviour of sheep shows remarkable similarities to the behaviour of scientists. [Video of typical behaviour]

*This imaginary research report closely parallels what happened following the real Pons-Fleischman 'cold fusion' announcement of 1989. As in the satire, people who failed to replicate the results, not appreciating the fact that the phenomenon might be very sensitive to fine details, tried to suggest that it was the original experiment, not the failed replication, that was at fault.

Brash rhetoric, in the style of the paragraph in bold in the above, combined with the adoption of phrases such as 'fiasco of the century', had powerful effects on the minds of the scientific community, and cold fusion was erroneously declared non-existent. The confirmation over time, by many researchers, of the reality of 'cold fusion', also known as 'low energy nuclear reactions' (LENR), (see refs. [1] and [2] above) was accordingly ignored. Some relevant issues are discussed in this interview.

As for 'sheep behaving like scientists' in the imaginary 'editorial note', the sheep in the video seem remarkably intelligent and nimble, so perhaps such a comparison is a slur on sheep!

© B D Josephson 2007