I picked up this book on the recommendation of a fellow scientist with good taste in work on the history of science. I’ll update this, should I get further through the book, but halfway through this book is greatly irritating.
The book is a pretty straightforward story by a sociologist of science, something Dr. Vidale is not (he is a professor of seismology). There are many myths, common tropes, about cold fusion, and, since Dr. Vidale likes Gary Taubes (as do I, by the way), perhaps he should learn about information cascades; Taubes has written much about them. He can google “Gary Taubes information cascade.”
An information cascade is a social phenomenon where something comes to be commonly believed without ever having been clearly proven. It happens with scientists as well as with anyone.
The beginning is largely an explanation of how science works theoretically.
It is not. Sociologists of science study how science actually works, not the theory.
The thesis seems to be that science traditionally is thought of as either alive or dead, depending on whether the issues investigated are uncertain or already decided.
Is that a “thesis” or an observation? It becomes very clear in this review that the author thinks “cold fusion” is dead. As with many such opinions, it’s quote likely he has no idea what he is talking about. What is “cold fusion”?
It was a popular name given to an anomalous heat effect, based on ideas of the source, but the scientists who discovered the effect, because they could not explain the heat with chemistry — and they were experts chemists, leaders in their field — called it an “unknown nuclear reaction.” They had not been looking for a source of energy. They were actually testing the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, and though that the approximation was probably good enough that they would find nothing. And then their experiment melted down.
A third category of “undead” is proposed, in which some scientists think the topic is alive and others think it is dead, and this category has a life of its own. Later, this theme evolves to argue the undead topic of cold fusion still alive, or was long after declared dead.
That is, more or less the basis for the book. The field is now known by the more neutral term of “Condensed Matter Nuclear Science,” sometimes “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions,” the heat effect is simply called the Anomalous Heat Effect by some. I still use “cold fusion” because the evidence has become overwhelming that the nuclear reaction, whatever it is, is producing helium from deuterium, which is fusion in effect if not in mechanism. The mechanism is still unknown. It is obviously not what was thought of as “fusion” when the AHE was discovered.
The beginning and the last chapter may be of interest to those who seek to categorize varieties in the study of the history of science, but such pigeonholing is of much less value to me than revealing case studies of work well done and poorly done.
That’s Gary Taubes’ professional theme. However, it also can be superficial. There is a fine study by Henry H. Bauer (2002). ‘Pathological Science’ is not Scientific Misconduct (nor is it pathological).
One argument I’m not buying so far is the claim that what killed cold fusion is the consensus among most scientists that it was nonsense, rather than the fact that cold fusion is nonsense.
If not “consensus among most scientists,” how then would it be determined that a field is outside the maintream? And is “nonsense” a “fact”? Can you weigh it?
There is a large body of experimental evidence, and then there are conclusions drawn from the evidence, and ideas about the evidence and the conclusions. Where does observed fact become “nonsense.”
“Nonsense” is something we say when what is being stated makes no sense to us. It’s highly subjective.
Notice that the author appears to believe that “cold fusion” is “nonsense,” but shows no sign of knowing what this thing it is, what exactly is reported and claimed.
No, the author seems to be believe “cold fusion is nonsense,” as a fact of nature, as a reality, not merely a personal reaction.
More to the point, where and when was the decision made that “cold fusion is dead”? The U.S. Department of Energy held two reviews of the field. The first was in 1989, rushed, and concluded before replications began appearing. Another review was held in 2004. Did these reviews declare that cold fusion was dead?
No. In fact, both recommended further research. One does not recommend further research for a dead field. In 2004, that recommendation was unanimous for an 18-member panel of experts.
This is to me a case study in which many open-minded people looked at a claim and shredded it.
According to Dr. Vidale. Yes, there was very strong criticism, even “vituperation,” in the words of one skeptic. However, the field is very much alive, and publication in mainstream journals has continued (increasing after a nadir in about 2005). Research is being funded. Governmental interest never disappeared, but it is a very difficult field.
There is little difference here between the truth and the scientists consensus about the truth.
What consensus, I must ask? The closest we have to a formal consensus would be the 2004 review, and what it concluded is far from the position Mr. Vidale is asserting. He imagines his view is “mainstream,” but that is simply the effect of an information cascade. Yes, many scientists think as he thinks, still. In other words, scientists can be ignorant of what is happening outside their own fields. But it is not a “consensus,” and never was. It was merely a widespread and very strong opinion, but that opinion was rejecting an idea about the Heat Effect, not the effect itself.
To the extent, though, that they were rejecting experimental evidence, they were engaged in cargo cult science, or scientism, a belief system. Not the scientific method.
The sociological understructure in the book seems to impede rather than aid understanding.
It seems that way to Dr. Vidale because he’s clueless about the reality of cold fusion research.
Specifically, there seems an underlying assumption that claims of excess heat without by-products of fusion reactions are a plausible interpretation, whose investigations deserved funding, but were denied by the closed club of established scientists.
There was a claim of anomalous heat, yes. It was an error for Pons and Fleischmann to claim that it was a nuclear reaction, and to mention “fusion,” based on the evidence they had, which was only circumstantial.
The reaction is definitely not what comes to mind when that word is used.
But . . . a fusion product, helium, was eventually identified (Miles, 1991), correlated with heat, and that has been confirmed by over a dozen research groups, and confirmation and measurement of the ratio with increased precision is under way at Texas Tech, very well funded, as that deserves. Extant measurements of the heat/helium ratio are within experimental error of the deuterium fusion to helium theoretical value.
(That does not show that the reaction is “d-d fusion,” because any reaction that starts with deuterium and ends with helium, no matter how this is catalyzed, must show that ratio.)
That Dr. Vidale believes that no nuclear product was identified simply shows that he’s reacting to what amounts to gossip or rumor or information cascade. (Other products have been found, there is strong evidence for tritium, but the levels are very low and it is the helium that accounts for the heat).
The author repeatedly cites international experts calling such scenarios impossible or highly implausible to suggest that the experts are libeling cold fusion claims with the label pathological science. I side with the experts rather than the author.
It is obvious that there were experts who did that; this is undeniable. Simon does not suggest “libel.” And Vidale merely joins in the labelling, without being specific such that one could test his claims. He’s outside of science. He’s taking sides, which sociologists generally don’t do, nor, in fact, do careful scientists do it within their field. To claim that a scientist is practicing “pathological science” is a deep insult. That is not a scientific category. Langmuir coined the term, and gave characteristics, which only superficially match cold fusion, which long ago moved outside of that box.
Also, the claim is made that this case demonstrates that sociologists are better equipped to mediate disputes involving claims of pathological science than scientists, which is ludicrous.
It would be, if the book claimed that, but it doesn’t. More to the point, who mediates such disputes? What happens in the real world?
Clearly, in the cold fusion case, another decade after the publication of this book has not contradicted any of the condemnations from scientists of cold fusion.
The 2004 U.S. DoE review was after the publication of the book, and it contradicts the position Dr. Vidale is taking, very clearly. While that review erred in many ways (the review was far too superficial, hurried, and the process allowed misunderstandings to arise, some reviewers clearly misread the presented documents), they did not call cold fusion “nonsense.” Several reviewers probably thought that, but they all agreed with “more research.”
Essentially, if one wishes to critically assess the stages through which cold fusion ideas were discarded, it is helpful to understand the nuclear processes involved.
Actually, no. “Cold fusion” appears to be a nuclear physics topic, because of “fusion.” However, it is actually a set of results in chemistry. What an expert in normal nuclear processes knows will not help with cold fusion. It is, at this point, an “unknown nuclear reaction” (which was claimed in the original paper). (Or it is a set of such reactions.) Yes, if someone wants to propose a theory of mechanism, a knowledge of nuclear physics is necessary, and there are physicists, with such understanding, experts, doing just that. So far, no theory has been successful to the point of being widely accepted.
One should not argue, as the author indirectly does, for large federal investments in blue sky reinvention of physics unless one has an imposing reputation of knowing the limitations of existing physics.
Simon does not argue for that. I don’t argue for that. I suggest exactly what both U.S. DoE reviews suggested: modest funding for basic research under existing programs. That is a genuine scientific consensus! However, it is not necessary a “consensus of scientists,” that is, some majority showing in a poll, as distinct from genuine scientific process as functions with peer review and the like.
It appears that Dr. Vidale has an active imagination, and thinks that Simon is a “believer” and thinks that “believers” want massive federal funding, so he reads that into the book. No, the book is about a sociological phenomenon, it was Simon’s doctoral thesis originally, and sociologists of science will continue to study the cold fusion affair, for a very long time. Huizenga called it the “scientific fiasco of the twentieth century.” He was right. It was a perfect storm, in many ways, and there is much that can be learned from it.
Cold fusion is not a “reinvention of physics.” It tells us very little about nuclear physics. “Cold fusion,” as a name for an anomalous heat effect, does not contradict existing physics. It is possible that when the mechanism is elucidated, it will show some contradiction, but what is most likely is that all that has been contradicted was assumption about what’s possible in condensed matter, not actual physics.
There are theories being worked on that use standard quantum field theory, merely in certain unanticipated circumstances. Quick example: what will happen if two deuterium molecules are trapped in relationship at low relative momentum, such that the nuclei form the vertices of a tetrahedron? The analysis has been done by Akito Takahashi: they will collapse into a Bose -Einstein condensate within a femtosecond or so, and that will fuse by tunneling within another femotosecond or so, creating 8Be, which can fission into two 4He nuclei, without gamma radiation (as would be expected if two deuterons could somehow fuse to helium without immediately fissioning into the normal d-d fusion products).
That theory is incomplete, I won’t go into details, but it merely shows how there may be surprises lurking in places we never looked before.
I will amend my review if my attention span is long enough, but the collection of objectionable claims has risen too high to warrant spending another few hours finishing this book. Gary Taubes’ book on the same subject, Bad Science, was much more factual and enlightening.
Taubes’ Bad Science is an excellent book on the history of cold fusion, the very early days only. The story of the book is well known, he was in a hurry to finish it so he could be paid. As is common with his work, he spent far more time than made sense economically for him. He believed he understood the physics, and sometimes wrote from that perspective, but, in fact, nobody understands what Pons and Fleischmann found. They certainly didn’t.
Gradually, fact is being established, and how to create reliable experiments is being developed. It’s still difficult, but measuring the heat/helium ratio is a reliable and replicable experiment. It’s still not easy, but what is cool about it is that, per existing results, if one doesn’t see heat, one doesn’t see helium, period, and if one does see heat (which with a good protocol might be half the time), one sees proportionate helium.
So Dr. Vidale gave the book a poor review, two stars out of five, based on his rejection of what he imagined the book was saying.
There were some comments, that can be seen by following the Unreal arguments link.
“Clearly, in the cold fusion case, another decade after the publication of this book has not contradicted any of the condemnations from scientists of cold fusion.” I think this statement is false. Although fusion may not be occurring, there is much, much evidence that some sort of nuclear event is taking place in these experiments. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VymhJCcNBBc
The video was presented by Frank Gordon, of SPAWAR. It is about nuclear effects, including heat.