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In early 1989, chemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, made a claim that shocked and galvanized chemists and physicists, and excited society with its potential implications for clean, cheap energy.

At a press conference, Fleishmann and Pons announced what would become known as cold fusion — the nuclear fusion of hydrogen at room temperature rather than inside a star. They described a startling process in heavy water (that is, water molecules with deuterium atoms replacing the normal hydrogens) in which the electrolysis of a salt solution could, so they said, make deuterium atoms absorb into a palladium electrode at such a high density that their nuclei merged, producing energy and the neutron and γ-ray emissions that are telltale signs of fusion.

The findings didn’t stand up to the storm of scrutiny that followed. As a recent recruit to the physical sciences editorial team at Nature, to which Fleischmann and Pons had submitted their paper, I got a whirlwind introduction to the politics of scientific controversy.

This week’s publication of a study funded by Google (C. P. Berlinguette et al. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1256-6; 2019) that sought (unsuccessfully) to replicate the claims and to search for deuterium fusion led me to reflect on that past. My conclusion? The sociology is at least as instructive as the science.

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Category: Science