Cold Fusion Conference

Posted May 22, 2005

Yesterday I attended a small cold fusion conference held at MIT. Mainly I did so because I felt guilty for more or less dismissing the field of cold fusion as bogus without actually taking the time to investigate it thoroughly. As a scientist, you're not supposed to make judgments except on the basis of evidence, so having this conference in my backyard was a good opportunity for me to actually have a look at what's going on.

Unfortunately, the conference didn't really resolve the situation. On the negative side, this is clearly not a "competitive" field of research, as there is a lot of really sloppy science being done by borderline-senile, tenured-until-they-die professors with nothing better to do. I hate being lectured on nuclear physics by someone who is baffled by how to operate a mouse. One consequence of being on the fringes of science is that all the participants tend to stick together and accept each other's results uncritically, rather than try to hold everyone to higher and higher standards to meet the challenge from the mainstream. The result is that you end up with a lot of plots without error bars, and a lot of evidence presented outside of a true experimental context (i.e. here's a baseline, then I changed one parameter like this and got these results, then I changed another parameter, etc.).

On the flip side, it seems that there are several groups who claim to have anomalous energy production working at reproducible and relatively obvious levels (if you put one watt in and get three watts out, this is an easy effect to test). Unfortunately, none of these experiments were really thoroughly presented, but instead were glossed over to get to material that was more "interesting" to researchers in the field — they tend to take the excess heat as given and spend effort on trying to figure out the exact mechanism, parameters, and theory governing it. Whereas I, coming from the outside, am still trying to definitively settle the question of, "Is there any fire underneath all this smoke?"

The other good part is that there are a few theoretical frameworks that may make some sense to explain some curious features of cold fusion, such as the absence of radiation. I don't know enough about the details to know if the theories are actually true (and in nuclear physics, it's easy to get an answer wrong by 50 orders of magnitude if you don't have the details correct), but conceptually they pass my "that might work" test. In other words, if I wrote a science-fiction story using such theories as the explanation, I'd be proud of coming up with something so plausible.

So, bottom line, I'm glad I attended the conference: though I still don't know what's going on, the people involved are not all obvious crackpots or charlatans, so it's worth some more study on my part. At the very least I should track down formal write-ups of the more promising excess-heat experiments.