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TOO HOT TO HANDLE by Frank Close

TOO HOT TO HANDLE

The Race for Cold Fusion

By Frank Close

Pub Date: May 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-691-08591-9
Publisher: Princeton Univ.

 Close, a physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, capably re-creates the ``year of confusion'' that followed the now infamous announcement that cold fusion had been achieved-by his account, an often farcical and always instructive example of the scientific process on vacation. On March 23, 1989, chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the Univ. of Utah called a press conference to announce that they had sustained nuclear fusion in room- temperature heavy water using materials and methods available to any high-school chemistry lab. By that evening, the pair of scientists had become world famous as the implications for super- cheap, environmentally clean, unlimited power were communicated around the globe. In fact, contrary to scientific custom, the news surfaced in business publications such as the Wall Street Journal rather than in a peer-reviewed science journal. The result, played against a background of worldwide anxiety over the greenhouse effect, major oil spills, and general fuel shortages, was a hysteria of celebration devoid of the scientific scrutiny that would have nipped this too-good-to-be-true announcement in the bud. It was only after several months-plus millions of committed dollars and uncounted hours of worldwide research effort-that Fleischmann and Pons's experimental methods, technical descriptions, and scientific deductions were convincingly discredited, and that scientists in general, Close shows, were left with egg on their faces. An entertaining morality tale, only occasionally overtechnical, pointing out the dangers of mixing ambition and politics with the pursuit of scientific truth.