Sociologist Bart Simon investigated
scientists in an unwelcoming world.
Photo by Christian
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. Simons 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 Ive 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.
Its like the Enron of science, said Simon of the mainstream
take on cold fusions 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.
Simons study moves past the usual headlines and into the closely-knit
international underground of researchers continuing to conduct cold fusion
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
The story wouldnt be that exciting if it was just about these
two guys saying theyre right until the day they die, Simon
explained. From a sociological point of view, it only becomes interesting
because theres 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
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.
Its 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 subjects 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 wasnt 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, hed interviewed dozens of key players in
the cold fusion underground.
Which isnt to say his inquiries were always welcome. Of particular
contention was the books title (which referred to cold fusion researchs
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 doesnt matter whether I think cold fusion
is real. What matters is whether they think theres something there.
But theyre human beings, and they can get emotional about their
subject. And, as their work gets better and better within the community,
the sense that theyve been wronged increases.
So sometimes, as with the Italian scientists who wanted to beat
me up, what matters is what they think I think.