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September 26, 2002 In the heydey of cold fusion - Bart Simon's underground research



Bart Simon

Sociologist Bart Simon investigated scientists in an unwelcoming world.

Photo by Christian Fleury

by James Martin

Bart Simon almost took one on the chin in the name of ethnographic study. During lunch at an Italian science conference, someone helpfully mentioned that nearby scientists were planning to escort Simon outside — and feed him a knuckle sandwich for dessert. Spontaneous peace talks ensued, and fisticuffs were narrowly prevented.

Welcome to the weird world of cold fusion.

Dr. Simon’s new book, Undead Science: Science Studies and the Afterlife of Cold Fusion (forthcoming in November from Rutgers University Press), expands his PhD dissertation about “one of the most famous scientific controversies of the last century.” However, adds the assistant professor of sociology, “I think I’ve got a different kind of story to tell about it.”

In 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed discovery of an amazing electrochemical process producing more energy than it used — what Simon sums up as “nuclear fusion in a test tube.”

Within months, the mainstream scientific community dismissed this potentially revolutionary new energy source as utterly groundless. Cold fusion all but dropped off the scientific radar, lingering only as a cautionary tale told in ethics classics.

“It’s like the Enron of science,” said Simon of the mainstream take on cold fusion’s brief heyday, “but with a happier ending, because science only wasted a summer before weeding these guys out.” This so-called ending was, however, just the beginning: the death of cold fusion was when things started getting really interesting.

Secretive science

Simon’s study moves past the usual headlines and into the closely-knit international underground of researchers continuing to conduct cold fusion experiments.

Some members are respected scientists whose taboo pursuits court ostracism; others are “entrepreneur inventors” with little to no scientific credentials. Some experiments are conducted late at night in borrowed laboratories; others are literally done in garages.

Details may differ dramatically from case to case, but cold fusion enthusiasts have one thing in common: buoyed by a handful of successful copycat experiments, they passionately believe the claims of Pons and Fleischmann warrant further research.

“The story wouldn’t be that exciting if it was just about these two guys saying they’re right until the day they die,” Simon explained. “From a sociological point of view, it only becomes interesting because there’s a whole bunch of people who maintain a level of research in spite of mainstream rejection of what they do — and it takes a social group to do that.”

Undead Science examines how this group sustains a research program despite being denied access to traditional modes of interaction. During the early days of the underground, for example, researchers traded results via the then-nascent Internet, in lieu of publishing papers in traditional scientific journals.

Of particular interest to Simon is how various resources, such as money, equipment, labour, plus less tangible elements, such as paranoia and professional legitimacy, help a subterranean community exist in an unwelcoming world.

It’s always challenging for an ethnographer to gain acceptance within such a community, and the cold fusion underground is no exception. At cold fusion conferences, unfamiliar faces are often pegged as undercover CIA operatives. Or, even worse, as reporters. Fortunately for Simon, the researchers “are also guys who really want to tell their story.”

While completing PhD studies at the University of California, San Diego, Simon fulfilled his “Laboratory Life Studies” requirement by working as a research assistant in a semi-clandestine cold fusion laboratory.

Although the lab was an open campus secret, its subject’s reputation nevertheless meant “no graduate student would touch cold fusion with a ten-foot pole, because it would ruin their careers” — leaving Simon ample opportunity to gain firsthand experience in cold fusion research. He wasn’t at the lab long enough to see any results, but his tenure did gain him access into the guarded community. By the time he completed Undead Science, he’d interviewed dozens of key players in the cold fusion underground.

Which isn’t to say his inquiries were always welcome. Of particular contention was the book’s title (which referred to cold fusion research’s “state of being alive in a semi-legitimate underground”), often misinterpreted or mistranslated as “dead science,” giving some researchers the incorrect impression Simon was out “to do a hatchet job on their field.”

“As a sociologist, it doesn’t matter whether I think cold fusion is real. What matters is whether they think there’s something there. But they’re human beings, and they can get emotional about their subject. And, as their work gets better and better within the community, the sense that they’ve been wronged increases.

“So sometimes, as with the Italian scientists who wanted to beat me up, what matters is what they think I think.”