Ball's obituary of Martin Fleischmann in Nature found wanting
A letter published in Nature addressed itself to an obituary of Martin Fleischmann written by Philip Ball, the flavour of which can be judged from the following extracts:
"the blot that cold fusion left on Martin Fleischmann's reputation is hard to expunge"
"cold fusion is now regarded as one
of the most notorious cases of what chemist Irving Langmuir called
pathological science; it was a lack of reproducibility that finally put
paid to the cold fusion idea"
"once you have been proved right
against the odds, it becomes harder to accept the possibility of
error. To make a mistake or a premature claim, even to fall prey
to self-deception, is a risk any scientist runs"
When I challenged Ball on this he replied naively that "those few that
claimed success have never been able to demonstrate this sufficiently
reliably and convincingly to persuade the majority. That is simply the
situation as it stands". Factually that may indeed be the case
but the fact that the majority are not convinced hardly suffices to
justify the dogmatic presumptions implicit in the extracts cited above.
In any event, a response was clearly called for and I was glad that Nature accepted the letter that I submitted to their Correspondence
section. In that letter I noted first of all that Ball's
obituary, in common with many others, ignored the large amount of
experimental evidence contradicting the view that cold fusion is
‘pathological science’, citing the library at www.lenr.org as providing a comprehensive listing of this research, including many downloadable papers. I also referred readers to my Guardian obituary.
I also noted that the situation at the time of the original
announcement of cold fusion was confused because of errors in the
nuclear measurements (this was not Pons and Fleischmann’s area of
expertise), plus the difficulty others had with replication; however,
problems with replication are not unusual in the context of materials
science so this is not a strong objection and, further, in time others
were able to get the experiment to work and confirm both excess heat
and nuclear products.
Ball included reference to 'a Utah physicist who reported in Nature
(see M.H. Salamon et al. Nature 344, 401–405; 1990) that he was unable
to replicate the work'. Those who took the trouble to read this
reference will note that the authors of that paper were much taken by
the fact that there was a mismatch between the amount of excess heat
claimed (which they did not measure) and the amount of radiation
they measured. In case any readers were to draw the erroneous
conclusion (which perhaps Ball hoped they would draw) that this refuted the possibility of nuclear
reaction, I noted in my letter:
"experiment never excluded the possibility that the energy liberated might be taken up directly by the lattice"
I concluded by saying:
Had [this scenario] not happened,
Fleischmann would have gained the credit due to him, rather than
becoming a tragic figure in the manner of your correspondent’s account.
The above is provided as a service to those unable to access the complete obituary and comment in the journal itself.
Since the above was written, the journal's embargo period has passed, and a
copy of my own letter
may be viewed on this web site.