This is an excerpt of an essay recently published in Aeon magazine as The Cold Fusion Horizon. Aeon's copyeditors did a pretty good job – except on the title! :-( – but they omitted quite a few of the links I'd included in my text. I've reproduced the relevant paragraphs here in their original form, to make my sources clear. There's a link at the end to the full piece in Aeon.
My Dinner with Andrea – Cold Fusion, Sane Science, and the Reputation Trap
Four years ago a physicist friend of mine made a joke on Facebook
about the laws of physics being broken in Italy. He had two pieces
of news in mind. One was a claim by the Gran Sasso-based OPERA
team to have discovered super
luminal neutrinos. The other concerned an engineer from
Bologna called Andrea Rossi, who claimed to have cold
fusion reactor producing commercially useful amounts of
Why were these claims so improbable? The neutrinos challenged a
fundamental principle of Einstein’s theory of special relativity,
that nothing can travel faster than light. While cold fusion, or
LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions), as it is also called, is the
controversial idea popularised by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley
Pons in 1989, that nuclear reactions similar to those in the sun
could also occur at or close to room temperature, under certain
conditions. Fleischmann and Pons claimed to have found evidence
that such reactions could occur in palladium loaded with deuterium
(an isotope of hydrogen). A few other physicists, including Sergio
Focardi at Bolonga, claimed similar effects with nickel and
ordinary hydrogen. But most were highly sceptical, and the field
“subsequently gained a reputation as pathological science,” as
it. Even the believers had not claimed commercially useful
quantities of excess heat, as Rossi now reported from his "E-Cat"
However, it turned out that my physicist friend and I disagreed
about which of these unlikely claims was the less improbable. He
thought the neutrinos, on the grounds that the work had been done
by respectable scientists, rather than by a lone engineer with a
somewhat chequered past. I thought Rossi, on grounds of the
physics. Superluminal neutrinos would overturn a fundamental tenet
of relativity, but all Rossi needed was a previously unnoticed
channel to a reservoir of energy whose existence is not in doubt.
We know that huge amounts of energy are locked up in metastable
nuclear configurations, trapped like water behind a dam. There’s
no known way to get useful access to that energy, at low
temperatures. But – so far as I knew – there was no "watertight" argument that no such method exists.
My friend agreed with me about the physics. (So has every other
physicist I’ve asked about it since.) But he still put more weight
on the sociological factors – reputation, as it were. So we agreed
to bet a dinner on the issue. My friend would pay if Rossi turned
out to have something genuine, and I would pay if the neutrinos
came up trumps. We’d split the bill if, as then seemed highly
likely, both claims turned out to be false.
It soon became clear that I wasn’t going to lose. The neutrinos
were scratched from the race, when it turned
out that someone on OPERA’s team of respectable scientists
had failed to tighten an optical lead correctly.
Rossi, however, has been going from strength to strength. While
it is fair to say that the jury is still out, there has been a lot
of good news (for my hopes of a free dinner) in the past couple of
years. There have been two reports (in 2013 and 2014)
of tests of Rossi’s device by teams of Swedish and Italian
physicists whose scientific credentials are not in doubt, and who
had access to one of his devices for extended periods (a month,
for the second test). Both reports claimed levels of excess heat
far beyond anything explicable in chemical terms, in the testers’
view. (The second report also claimed isotopic shifts in the
composition of the fuel.) Since then there have been several
reports of duplications by experimenters in Russia
guided by details in the 2014 report.
More recently, Rossi was granted
a US patent for one of his devices, previously refused on
the grounds that insufficient evidence had been provided that the
technique worked as claimed. There are credible
reports that a 1MW version of his device, producing many
times the energy that it consumes, has been on trial in an
industrial plant in Florida for months, with good results so far.
And Rossi’s US backer and licensee, Tom Darden – a
respectable North Carolina-based industrialist, with a long track
record of investment in pollution-reducing industries – has been
increasingly willing to speak
out in support of the LENR technology field. (Another
investor, UK-based Woodford Funds, reports
that it conducted "a rigorous due diligence process that has taken
two and half years.")
Finally, very recently, there’s a paper
by two senior Swedish physicists, Rickard Lundin and Hans Lidgren,
proposing a mechanism for Rossi’s results, inspired in part by the
second of two test reports mentioned above. Lunden and Lidgren say
that the "experimental results by Rossi and co-workers and their
E-Cat reactor provide the best experimental verification of the …
process" they propose.
As I say, I don’t claim that this evidence is conclusive, even
collectively. It’s still conceivable that there is fraud involved,
as many sceptics have claimed; or some large and persistent
measurement error. Yet as David Bailey and Jonathan Borwein point
these alternatives are becoming increasingly unlikely – which is
great news for my dinner prospects! (Bailey and Borwein have also
interviewed Rossi, here.)
Moreover, Rossi is not the only person claiming commercially
relevant results from LENR. Another prominent example is Robert
Godes, of Brillouin Energy,
profiled in this
recent Norwegian newspaper piece. If you want to dismiss
Rossi on the grounds that he’s claiming something impossible, one
of these explanations needs to work for Godes, too.
You can see why I’ve been salivating at the thought of My Dinner
With Andrea, as I’ve been calling it (h/t Louis
Malle), in honour of the man who will be the absent guest of
honour, if my physicist friend is paying. And it is not only my
stomach that has been becoming increasingly engaged with this
fascinating story. I’m a philosopher of science, and my brain has
been finding it engrossing, too.
What do I mean? Well, it hasn’t escaped my attention that there’s
a lot more than a free dinner at stake. Imagine that someone had a
working hot fusion reactor in Florida – assembled, as Rossi’s 1MW
device is reported to be, in a couple of shipping containers, and
producing several hundred kilowatts of excess power, month after
month, in apparent safety. That would be huge news, obviously. (As
several people have noticed, a new clean source of energy would be
really useful, right about now!)
But if the potential news is this big, why haven’t most of you
heard about Rossi, or Godes, or any of the other people who have
been working in the area (for many years, in some cases)? This is
where things get interesting, from a philosopher of science’s
point of view.
As a question about sociology, the answer is obvious. Cold fusion
is dismissed as pseudoscience, the kind of thing that respectable
scientists and science journalists simply don’t talk about (unless
to remind us of its disgrace). As a recent Fortune piece
puts it, the Fleischmann and Pons "experiment was eventually
debunked and since then the term cold fusion has become almost
synonymous with scientific chicanery." In this case, the author of
the article is blithely reproducing the orthodox view, even in the
lead-in to his interview with Tom Darden – who tells him a
completely different story (and has certainly put his money where
his mouth is).
Ever since 1989, in fact, the whole subject has been largely
off-limits, in mainstream scientific circles and the scientific
media. Authors who do put their head above the parapet are ignored
or rebuked. Most recently, Lunden and Lidgren report
that they submitted their paper to the journal Plasma Physics
and Controlled Fusion, but that the editors declined to
have it reviewed; and that even the non-reviewed preprint archive,
arxiv.org, refused to accept it.
So, as a matter of sociology, it is easy to see why Rossi gets
little serious attention; why an interview with Tom Darden
associates him with scientific chicanery; and why, I hope, some of
you are having doubts about me, for writing about the subject in a
way that indicates that I am prepared to consider it seriously.
(If so, hold that attitude. I want to explain why I take it to
reflect a pathology in our present version of the scientific
method. My task will be easier if you are still suffering from the
Sociology is one thing, but rational explanation another. It is
very hard to extract from this history any satisfactory justification
for ignoring recent work on LENR. After all, the standard line is
that the rejection of cold fusion in 1989 turned on the failure to
replicate the claims of Fleischmann and Pons. Yet if that were the
real reason, then the rejection would have to be provisional.
Failure to replicate couldn’t possibly be more than provisional –
empirical science is a fallible business, as any good scientist
would acknowledge. In that case, well done results claiming to
overturn the failure to replicate would certainly be of great
Perhaps the failure to replicate wasn’t crucial after all?
Perhaps we knew on theoretical grounds alone that cold fusion was
impossible? But this would make nonsense of the fuss made at the
time and since, about the failure to reproduce the Fleischmann and
Pons results. And in any case, it is simply not true. As I said at
the beginning, what physicists actually say (in my experience) is
that although LENR is highly unlikely, we cannot say that it is
impossible. We know that the energy is in there, after all.
No doubt one could find some physicists who would claim it was
impossible. But they might like to recall the case of Lord
Rutherford, greatest nuclear physicist of his day, who famously
claimed that "anyone who expects a source of power from
transformation of … atoms is talking moonshine" – the very day
before Leo Szilard, prompted by newspaper reports of Rutherford’s
out the principles of the chain reaction that makes nuclear
fission useable as an energy source, peaceful or otherwise.
This is not to deny that there is truth in the principle
popularised by Carl Sagan, that extraordinary claims require
extraordinary evidence. We should certainly be very cautious about
such surprising claims, unless and until we amass a great deal of
evidence. But this is not a good reason for ignoring such evidence
in the first place, or refusing to contemplate the possibility
that it might exist. (As Robert Godes said
recently: "It is sad that such people say that science
should be driven by data and results, but at the same time refuse
to look at the actual results.")
Again, there’s a sociological explanation why few people are
willing to look at the evidence. They put their reputations at
risk by doing so. Cold fusion is tainted, and the taint is
contagious – anyone seen to take it seriously risks contamination
themselves. So the subject is stuck in a place that is largely
inaccessible to reason – a reputation trap, we might
call it. People outside the trap won’t go near it, for fear of
falling in. "If there is something scientists fear it is to become
like pariahs," as Rickard Lundin puts
it. People inside the trap are already regarded as
disreputable, an attitude that trumps any efforts they might make
to argue their way out, by reason and evidence.
Read the rest of this essay at Aeon.
Wednesday, 25 February 2015
[Preprint of an obituary to appear in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, June 2015]
Peter Charles Menzies died at home in Sydney on 6 February 2015, the day after his sixty-second birthday, at the sad conclusion of a seven-year disagreement with cancer. No one who knew him will be surprised to learn that he conducted this long last engagement with the same strength of mind, clarity, and good-natured equanimity for which he was known and loved by friends, students and colleagues, over the three decades of his professional life. He continued working throughout his illness, teaching and supervising at Macquarie University until his retirement in 2013, and writing and collaborating until his final weeks. He will be remembered by the Australasian philosophical community as one of its most lucid and generous voices, and by philosophers worldwide as one of the most astute metaphysicians of his generation.
Menzies was born in Brisbane, and spent his childhood there and in Adelaide. His family moved to Canberra in 1966, where he attended Canberra Grammar School. He studied Philosophy at ANU, graduating with the University Medal in 1975. He went on to an MPhil at St Andrews, writing on Michael Dummett's views on Realism under the supervision of Stephen Read; and then to a PhD at Stanford, where he worked with Nancy Cartwright on Newcomb Problems and Causal Decision Theory. His Stanford experience was evidently formative, not merely in setting the course of much of his future work, but in establishing a fund of anecdotes that would long enrich the Coombs tearoom and other Australian philosophy venues. There is a generation of Australian-trained metaphysicians who know little about Michel Foucault, except that he had the good fortune to be taken out for pizza in Palo Alto by a young Peter Menzies, following a talk at Stanford. (Peter would add how delighted he was to discover that Foucault preferred pizza to something expensive and French.)
Returning to Australia in 1983, Menzies held a Tutorship at the Department of Traditional & Modern Philosophy, University of Sydney, from 1984 to 1986. He was then awarded an ARC Research Fellowship, held initially at the University of Sydney and then at ANU, where he won a Research Fellowship in the Philosophy Program, RSSS. He remained at ANU until 1995, when he took up a Lectureship at Macquarie University. He was promoted to a Personal Chair at Macquarie in 2005, becoming an Emeritus Professor following his retirement in 2013. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities in 2007, and was President of the Australasian Association of Philosophy in 2008–2009.
|Peter Menzies with Arnie Koslow, Cambridge 1992 – Photograph by Hugh Mellor.|
The central focus of Menzies’ philosophical work, throughout much of his career, was the study of causation – both causation in itself, and causation in its relevance to other philosophical topics, such as physicalism, levels of explanation, and free will. From the beginning, he had a particular knack for putting his finger on difficulties in other philosophers’ positions, and for explaining with great clarity what the problem was. With this combination of talents, he was soon making a difference. At the beginning of David Lewis’s famous paper ‘Humean Supervenience Debugged’ (Mind, 1994), Lewis singles out "especially the problem presented in Menzies (1989)" as the source of, as he puts it, "the unfinished business with causation". The reference is to Menzies’ ‘Probabilistic Causation and Causal Processes: A Critique of Lewis’ (Philosophy of Science, 1989), and other early papers had a similar impact.
Most would agree that the business with causation remains unfinished, twenty years later, but that the field is greatly indebted to Menzies for much of the progress that has been made in the past three decades. As a philosopher who argued that we should understand causation in terms of the notion of making a difference, he certainly practised what he preached, within his own arena.
Fair-minded to a fault, Menzies was just as adept at putting his finger on what he saw as failings in his own work, and often returned with new insights to previously worked ground. His much-cited piece 'Probabilistic Causation and the Pre-emption Problem' (Mind, 1996) is such an example. Later classics include his ‘Difference-Making in Context’ (in Collins, et al, eds, Counterfactuals and Causation, MIT Press, 2004), and ‘Non-Reductive Physicalism and the Limits of the Exclusion Problem’ (JPhil, 2009), a piece co-authored with Christian List.
List is Menzies’ most recent collaborator and co-author, but several other philosophers, including myself, had earlier had this good fortune. In my case it happened twice, the first and better-known result being our paper ‘Causation as a Secondary Quality’ (BJPS, 1993), a piece actually written in the late 1980s, and first delivered in Philosophy Room at the University of Sydney at the 1990 AAP Conference. (I can’t recall how we divided up the delivery, but we certainly fielded questions jointly, and I remember complaining to Peter afterwards that he’d missed an obvious Dorothy-Dixer from a young David Braddon-Mitchell.) Whatever its qualities, or lack of them, the paper proved a stayer, and is for each of us our most-cited article, by a very wide margin.
As one of Menzies’ collaborators, it is easy to understand why he was such a successful teacher and supervisor, held in such grateful regard by generations of students. He combined patience, equanimity, generosity, and unfailing good-humour, with insight, exceptional clarity, and an almost encyclopaedic acquaintance with relevant parts of the literature. In effect, he made it impossible for his grateful students – and collaborators! – not to learn, and to enjoy the process. Many of his PhD students from ANU and Macquarie, such as Mark Colyvan, Daniel Nolan, Stuart Brock, Cathy Legg, Mark Walker, Joe Mintoff, Nick Agar, Kai Yee Wong, and Lise Marie Andersen, have now gone on to distinguished careers in Australasia and elsewhere. All remember him with fondness and gratitude. As Lise Marie Andersen, one of his last PhD students, puts it: “As a supervisor Peter was patient, warm and extremely generous with his time and knowledge. As a philosopher he was an inspiration.”
Menzies is survived by his daughter Alice and son Edward (Woody) from his former marriage to Edwina Menzies, and by Alice’s three sons, Joseph, Nicolas and Eli; by his partner Catriona Mackenzie, step-sons Matt and Stefan, and a step-granddaughter, Olivia, born a few weeks before his death; and by his brother Andrew and sister Susan. By his friends, students, and colleagues, as by his family, he will be very sadly missed.