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Too Hot to Handle

Too Hot to Handle: The Race for Cold Fusion

Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 386
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  • Book Info
    Too Hot to Handle
    Book Description:

    Frank Close, a leading physicist and talented popular science writer, reveals the true story of the cold fusion controversy--a story ignored until now in spite of the glare of publicity surrounding Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. On March 23, 1989, these two Utah scientists held an astonishing press conference, maintaining that they had succeeded, working in secret, in harnessing atomic fusion. What was the basis for their claims to have achieved cold fusion in a test tube in a basement laboratory, while other scientists--using magnets as big as houses and temperatures hotter than those in the center of the sun--were failing to produce as much power as they were using? Why did Fleischmann and Pons proclaim their "discovery" at a news conference, when first announcements of scientific results are almost always made within the scientific community? Why did the full-blown media event inspired by their initial report cause governments to reorient their research programs in hopes of cornering the "new technology"? And why did some scientists recklessly abandon their traditional painstaking methods in haste to be first to prove or discredit the experiment? Acquainted at first hand with investigations of cold fusion on two continents, Close is uniquely qualified to probe the motivations behind Fleischmann's and Pons's startling assertions and to explore the intellectual and political turmoil that surrounded the cold fusion debate.

    Originally published in 1991.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6160-6
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
    (pp. 1-4)
    Frank Close
    (pp. 5-14)

    In a good adventure story the heroes are going to change the world almost single handedly against all the odds, and come through unscathed. The tale has added bite if its characters appear to be real, its action plausible, if it could ‘happen to me’. The following story seems to be far-fetched, unreal; yet it happened.

    Civilisation is now threatened with possible destruction: the atmosphere is heating up and the seas are rising, trees are dying from acid rain, a hole in the ozone layer appears over the South Pole. Pollution from the dregs of an ever increasing energy consumption...

  5. PART ONE: Genesis

      (pp. 17-30)

      The announcement of room temperature fusion in 1989 has some of the hallmarks of a detective mystery where appearances deceive. Consider ‘the facts’. Room temperature fusion has been discovered independently and simultaneously by two groups in Utah working within a few miles of each other. One team consists of two chemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, in Salt Lake City; the other group involving Paul Palmer and Steven Jones at Brigham Young University consists of physicists. The basic set-up consists of rather basic apparatus out of a school laboratory—battery, heavy water, metal electrodes and meters for heat or neutrons...

      (pp. 31-51)

      When I was a child my father would tease me with two conundrums: ‘What happens when an irresistible force meets the immovable object?’ and ‘If you discovered a substance that destroyed every solid, how would you contain it?’ I suspected that he was cheating, that the questions were based on false premisses. There is nothing that is infinitely irresistible nor that is truly immovable, and as for the idea of a ‘substance impossible to contain’—that,I decided, was a fiendish invention designed to get me into a muddle as I was sure that such a substance would be a...

      (pp. 52-69)

      Cold fusion is the brainchild of Charles Frank, who first came up with the idea in 1947.¹ He was at Bristol University in England where the physics department was leading the world in the study of cosmic rays, and whose head, Cecil Powell, was in process of winning the Nobel Prize for his role in this.

      The Bristol team was in the process of discovering that in addition to the light electron and heavy proton and neutron there are particles of intermediate masses which they named ‘mesotrons’. In particular they identified two mesotrons with nearly identical masses but different properties:...

      (pp. 70-82)

      In the phone directory there are the barest summaries of thousands of lives—a name, place of abode and the occasional glimpse of intrigue. You may find a rare name whose five or six entries must be related, so giving insights into a family structure advertised by their addresses. A number reveal more of themselves in the pages ofWho’s Who.

      Martin Fleischmann is a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific society. His entry inWho’s Whoshows that he has won The Palladium (sic) Medal of The Electrochemical Society and has been professor and head of the...

      (pp. 83-104)

      How far had Jones and also Fleischmann and Pons reached in their researches by late 1988? Jones had been doing research funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) since May 1986, had hints of neutrons and by September 1988 was in the process of starting to use a neutron detector sensitive enough to measure their energies and determine whether indeed they came from fusion. So his results were preliminary but it would only take a few weeks’ work, using the neutron spectrometer, to know for sure. It was on the last day of 1988 that he began the experiments...

    • 7 HARWELL
      (pp. 105-118)

      On Friday, 24 March the news hit the headlines. All around the world people tried the experiment for themselves wanting to be the first to prove or disprove the claims. The basic fusion kit seemed to simple that almost anyone could set it up; and almost everyone did. Partly as a result of this, during the following weeks there was much commotion and claims of dubious scientific value were seized upon by advocates of test-tube fusion to bolster their claims.

      The quality scientific research proceeded much more carefully over several weeks and months. Universities and laboratories with first-rate equipment formed...

  6. PART TWO: Deuteronomy

      (pp. 121-145)

      Everyone who is over 35 years old is supposed to recall where they were when they first learned of the assassination of President J. F. Kennedy. For many scientists and others the same will be true for cold fusion. I was in the arrival lounge at, ironically, J. F. Kennedy airport in New York having just flown from Britain. It was around 2 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, on Thursday, 23 March and it was not until some days later that I realised how bizarre this was; not only was cold fusion incomprehensible with respect to the laws of fusion, but...

      (pp. 146-171)

      In October 1988 the chairman of the University of Indiana chemistry department had sent an invitation to Pons to give a talk on electrochemistry, dateline 4 April. Pons had agreed, but in the meantime had been so busy as a result of the race with Jones that he had not been in touch with them. So on Monday, 20 March Dennis Peters, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Indiana, called up Pons to finalise plans for his visit and to ask him for a title so as to announce the talk. Pons replied that he ‘couldn’t tell (Peters) the title until...

    • 10 MONEY
      (pp. 172-191)

      On 7 April the University of Utah had told the State Legislature in Salt Lake City that if they didn’t put five million dollars in to support test-tube fusion ‘the discovery of the century will be developed by Mitsubishi’. The State approved the money by a vote of 96–3 and on 20 April Governor Bangerter signed the bill. A letter the next day in the localDeseret Newsasked, ‘If the governor thinks fusion research is so wonderful, why doesn’t he put his own Bangerter family fortune into it as a good example to us all’, to which Robert...

      (pp. 192-210)

      The heat in Utah had been measured by chemists. Jones had seen no heat but had detected some neutrons—he is a nuclear physicist, not a chemist. The Indiana team (see Chapter 8) consisted of physicists and they were applying their expertise in the natural way: ‘If this is fusion there must be neutrons. Jones sees some but not enough to fit with the heat that the chemists claimed. But are there neutrons even at the Jones level? We are nuclear physicists so we shall look for neutrons.’

      In early April few details of the experiments were known and no...

      (pp. 211-232)

      Throughout April groups all over America had been trying to produce the test-tube fusion phenomenon for themselves. There were rumours passing around the electronic mail networks but no clear information on what they were finding, so the imminent approach of the American Physical Society (APS) meeting, due to be held in Baltimore during 1–4 May, began to take on a special importance. Here for the first time the physicists would get togetheren masseand discuss progress.

      Most of us did not yet know how the results were turning out; during my discussions with several physicists over the weekend...

      (pp. 233-253)

      Everyone with any experience of nuclear physics realised that if the chemists’ claims for cold fusion were true then the story was more complex than the media were advertising. There were not just the obvious energy implications and their possible impact on geopolitics, but there were also more worrying concerns. Could this form of cold fusion have military applications, would the neutrons from it be useful for enriching uranium and hence have applications in conventional fission, and was it a source of tritium—the fuel of hydrogen bombs?

      If test-tube fusion had indeed behaved as the headlines following 23 March...

      (pp. 254-272)

      By the end of the spring 1989 it was clear that there were problems. Of the two signs of fusion—heat and nuclear products—some saw one, some saw the other, most saw neither and very few saw both. The measurements required sensitive instruments which were liable to error. Even those groups who reported results acknowledged that they were irreproducible; sometimes they worked, at other times they did not. This began to convince many people that there was something unscientific about the claimed phenomenon.

      Douglas Morrison, a physicist at CERN in Geneva, noticed another unscientific property about test-tube fusion: whether...

  7. PART THREE: Revelations

      (pp. 275-288)

      In Utah on 24 March 1989, the day after the press conference, the phones in the chemistry department were permanently occupied. Work on the test-tube fusion cells stopped as Pons, Fleischmann and Hawkins were overwhelmed by calls which came continuously from corporate America seeking details and from universities, labs and other institutions wanting talks and raising questions about details of the procedures. The fortissimo of interest had heard only a pianissimo of explanation.

      Fleischmann was preparing to go to England and the plan was that Hawkins would drive him to the airport in expectation of meeting Jones there and sending...

      (pp. 289-301)

      On 15 June Harwell Lab, with whom Fleischmann had close contacts, announced that a team of six electrochemists and four nuclear physicists had performed over 100 experiments with as many as thirty test-tube fusion cells and had seen nothing. Harwell had spent the equivalent of half a million dollars and called on scores of specialists from the laboratory’s 4000 strong workforce. They made an in-depth fine-mesh survey; they had varied the size, shape and thickness of the electrodes, had used palladium that had eight different metallurgical histories thereby covering the ‘cast versus extruded’ debate. They had varied the currents and...

    • 17 ‘IT’S NOT FUSION’
      (pp. 302-316)

      For those who had read the correspondence between MIT and the Utah chemists inNatureon 29 June, there was little doubt left that some, at least, of the claims for fusions were flawed. On the electronic mail networks through the spring and into the summer there was still an ongoing debate under the heading ‘It’s Not Fusion’. Although no one had replicated the dramatic claims of heat and fusion products that had emanated from the University of Utah, there were, nonetheless, interesting claims being made in several quarters that small bursts of neutrons were being seen, perhaps due to...

      (pp. 317-326)

      After a year we were left with small amounts of heat at best, nothing that suggested a solution to the world’s energy needs, and no commensurate amounts of radiation. Faced with this non-evidence for test-tube fusion most of the thousands who had attended the conferences and watched their computer mail avidly in the early days had by now returned to the pursuits which they had interrupted twelve months before. The attendees at ‘The First Annual Cold Fusion Conference’ held in Salt Lake City at the end of March 1990 were for the most part the true believers, with a handful...

      (pp. 327-350)

      In the spring of 1989 Jo Redish had assured people at the Baltimore APS meeting that ‘the standard workings of science’ would find answers to the questions: Is there useful heat produced during electrolysis of heavy water in the presence of palladium?’ and, if the answer was yes, then ‘Is nuclear fusion the process responsible?’ A year later much had transpired that was not in the ‘standard’ working of science. These untoward events included Pons’ lawyer sending a letter to a group of scientists whose results did not confirm test-tube fusion, allegations in the media that Pons was accusing fellow...


      (pp. 351-353)
      (pp. 354-356)
  9. NOTES
    (pp. 357-368)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 369-376)