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Monday, February 15, 2016

Memories of cold fusion

In 1989 I was invited to a dinner party a few weeks after the announcement of cold fusion. By that time there were reports that the results of Fleischmann and Pons were not being reproduced in other labs — at least not without ambiguity from measurement error. I was asked what I thought about it, and I answered that I had doubts about cold fusion although perhaps Fleischmann and Pons had stumbled across some other new and noteworthy phenomenon.

Nope. As far as I can tell, no new discovery whatsoever emerged from the cold fusion episode.

In some respects the cold fusion affair was a triumph of theoretical physics over experimental physics. The theoreticians were saying all along that cold fusion was highly unlikely to be true because no widely-accepted theory of physics provided a basis for it. They were correct in retrospect. But having been trained as an engineer, I find it easier to identify with experimental physics despite the big screw-up by Fleischmann and Pons. Theoretical physicists should be careful about arbitrarily rejecting every new purported discovery merely because the observations don't fit widely-accepted theories. There's a chance that those theories might be incomplete or inaccurate, despite having been peer-reviewed and experimentally verified in the past. In other words, hubris and close-mindedness are risks for theoreticians just as much as faulty technique and the desire for glory (or riches) are risks for experimenters.

Today, though, theoreticians and experimenters are at peace because of the announcement on gravitational waves. It seems to me that each side of physics still needs the other. I sometimes have wondered whether the work on string theory has gotten too far ahead of confirming experiments, but LIGO is a reminder that experimenters, if given sufficient time and money, can eventually catch up to the theoreticians. It's a happy day when that happens. But how long will this convergence between the theoreticians and the experimenters last, before the next report of an inexplicable or theoretically inconsistent phenomenon? Hard to say.