1989 – Cold Fusion
To fuse atomic nuclei together, you generally need an atom smasher or a thermonuclear bomb – both of which may be difficult to obtain and unpleasant to use. But in 1989 two scientists in Utah (Pons and Fleischmann) reported that they produced a fusion reaction using a battery and a small piece of wire – and this fusion reaction was apparently so powerful, it nearly destroyed their laboratory!
Naturally, most physicists believed this work was an egregious error. And many top physicists stubbornly refused to investigate this topic further. But to its great credit, the U.S. Department of Energy insisted that, given the huge financial investment in fusion research, and given the way that science should be carried out (extraordinary results require extraordinary evidence) serious scientists should conduct serious investigations, to prove or disprove conclusively whether this effect was real.
And that’s where I had the great luck to come in, at the right place at the right time.
Working at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, my manager and mentor Kelvin Lynn received a mandate from the D.O.E. to investigate this effect, and he asked me to design and run a large experiment with dozens of electrochemical cells, to look for evidence that nuclear reactions had taken place. It took a lot of help and support from many talented technicians, machinists – and even a glassblower, who I had the privilege of watching work – for me to do this, and to keep the system running for the months that we collected data.
Astonishingly, we did discover the by-product of nuclear fusion: the exotic hydrogen isotope known as tritium! But after many hours of research at the Brookhaven library, reading many previously classified “top secret” research reports created during the Cold War, I learned that increased tritium was exactly what we should expect from these experiments, but enhanced because of electrolysis and not because of fusion – in other words, no revolutionary discovery, no smoking gun. (In fact, the Nazis wanted to use exactly this technique to obtain fuel for an atomic bomb during World War II, in Telemark, Norway, leading to the greatest act of sabotage during the war. )
There were two crowning highlights for me. The first was when I presented our results – my first ever presentation – at the world’s biggest physics conference (the March meeting of the APS) – in front of a huge auditorium packed with probably 500 people! And the second came when our research paper describing our results appeared in a journal, right next to this paper by none other than Pons and Fleischmann!
|Terrific people I worked with
|Kelvin Lynn, Peter Dull, Marc Weber, Mike Carroll, Jim Hurst, and so many friendly colleagues and scientists I could not name them all.
|Great places I visited
|Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island, sightseeing every weekend through the boroughs and neighborhoods of New York City
|New things I learned
|Experimental research, electrochemistry, nuclear methods, that great teamwork can achieve things that individual people can’t, watching the slowly dying art of “scientific glassblowing”