See all NewsEngineering News

Experts Speak on Cold Fusion Controversy at Dean’s Seminar Series Film Screening

In 1989, two University of Utah scientists announced they’d achieved cold fusion, claiming they’d solved the world’s energy problems with seawater and an odd-looking glass device. The result was cold fusion mania: The scientists appeared on the cover of Time magazine, the price of metal used in cold fusion soared, and the science-loving public bought up “fusion” t-shirts and soft drinks.

But before the frenzy could reach its Northwestern's Laurie Zoloth and Heidi Schellmanpeak, the science was discredited. Researchers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann were ridiculed and accused of scientific fraud, and questions arose about the university’s involvement in the research.

Despite the backlash, however, believers remain: More than 20 years later – despite mountains of evidence and against the opinions of the broader scientific community – a small number of scientists continue to pursue cold fusion.

“The Believers,” a film by the Chicago-based science documentary production company 137 Films, explores the sad and strange events surrounding the story of cold fusion. A work-in-progress screening of the film was presented October 27 at the McCormick School of Engineering as part of the 2011-12 Dean’s Seminar Series.

Following was a panel discussion with Northwestern experts, including Ann Adams, associate vice president for research; Mark Ratner, chair, Department of Chemistry; Heidi Schellman, chair, Department of Physics and Astronomy; and Laurie Zoloth, professor of religious studies, medical humanities, and bioethics.

The panelists – none of whom believed in the validity of cold fusion – discussed how Pons and Fleischmann’s emotional attachment to their work may have clouded their thinking, allowing faulty science to be introduced to the mainstream.

“Martin Fleischmann is a brilliant guy … but brilliant guys have ideas that are sometimes right and sometimes wrong,” said Ratner, chair of Northwestern’s chemistry department. “After all, Isaac Newton believed in reincarnation and alchemy, and I would argue that he was the greatest scientist that ever lived.”

“Truth is hard,” Ratner added. “I think the fact that there are still people who go to these fusion conferences – I think it says something about people. They want to believe it’s easy. I don’t think it is.”

Schellman, chair of the physics and astronomy department, said Pons and Fleischmann’s mishap might have been prevented if they had been working in collaboration with other scientists that could have kept in check their emotional attachment to their work.

Panelists at the Dean's Seminar screening of 'The Believers'“That’s something that all of us as scientists have to worry about. I’m not going to go off and engage in straight-up scientific fraud. However, I know I could fool myself, and in extreme cases, I could fall in love with an idea,” Schellman said. “Fortunately, if I screw up, I know my colleagues will straighten me out before I get in any trouble.”

Zoloth, a bioethicist, agreed, noting that the public relies on the honesty of the scientific community every day. “I don’t fear the (scientists) who are faking it on purpose. I fear the ones who believe it to be real.”

“To prove something false in science isn’t to be mean,” Zoloth added. “That’s good science.”

The work-in-progress screening, held in the ITW classroom at the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, was also attended by the film’s directors, Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown. Both are graduates of Northwestern’s MFA film program. 

View a trailer for "The Believers" here.

-- Sarah Ostman