Former NASA director James C. Fletcher, who has joined the University of Utah's solid-state fusion advisory board, thinks the so-called "fusion fizzle" has been exaggerated.
The former head of the nation's space program is convinced that U. fusion researchers B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann have the right stuff."The facts are beginning to sort themselves out. It's fairly clear that you can produce fusion in a test tube - in a cell - like the kind Pons and Fleischmann use," Fletcher said. "It's clear because so many people around the world have confirmed it - at least partially or totally."
Fletcher's comments Wednesday in Salt Lake City came in the wake of the meeting of the Electrochemical Society in Los Angeles.
Expected to be a supportive forum for the U.'s fusion co-discoverers, the symposium, and particularly the subsequent news conference, instead became a heyday for scientists and journalists anxious to fire hostile accusations at the Utah researchers.
Scientific papers presented by advocates - researchers from Stanford University, Case Western University and Texas A&M, who have confirmed the U. experiment - seemed to get lost in the scuffle.
Press coverage instead focused on a naysayer - presenter Nathan Lewis of the California Institute of Technology.
First at the American Physical Meeting in Baltimore and again Monday in Los Angeles, Lewis said faulty measurements and erroneous assumptions are behind the so-called excess heat of the Utah experiment.
Lewis said his team of more than 20 researchers in some 50 experiments have tried to duplicate the work of Pons and Fleischmann and have seen no evidence of helium, neutrons, gamma rays, tritium, excess heat - or fusion.
Lewis isn't the first to criticize the revolutionary Utah experiment. Researchers from MIT and the University of California at Santa Barbara have hurled equally scathing attacks. And, this week in a letter published in the British scientific journal Nature, Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling contended that chemical reactions, rather than a nuclear process, may account for the heat reportedly generated by the Utah team's simple table-top device.
"There's obviously a controversy about solid state fusion, but it has been blown out of proportion," Fletcher said. "But that's the way the media is, I am afraid. They live on exaggeration."
And the bickering? Fletcher says it's normal.
"Reasonable men differ and I think it's worse in a scientific community than in others. But scientists behaving like politicians is not a good scene." Fletcher is no stranger to controversy and hostile media - having assumed the reins at NASA for a second time shortly after the Challenger disaster. Now, he says he's anxious to lend his support to the controversial U. fusion project.
The fact that a lot of people haven't confirmed it, he said, is not too consequential. "Maybe they just didn't do it right."
"I have seen some of the confirmations," said Fletcher, who recently returned from Italy where he met with scientists who have duplicated the Pons/Fleischmann results. "These are very good scientists and the work was carefully done. And there is no question about it - they got fusion."
U. researchers, reporting increased releases of heat, hold steadfast to their initial claim: fusion in a flask.
"The jury, however, is still out on how the heat is produced," Fletcher said. "That will come out in good time."
Meanwhile, the former U. president said he is "seriously considering" returning to the U. as a faculty member. "But I haven't made that decision yet."
Beginning immediately, he said he will help form a committee to advise University of Utah President Chase Peterson and the state on the development of solid-state fusion.
Fletcher, who calls himself an "ex-physicist," is insistent he isn't an expert on fusion.
"But I have dealt with the experts and understand where they are coming from," he said. "I am mainly a person who brings a lot of talented people together and tries to get them working together to come up with a consensus.
"I think in time that will happen (on fusion)," he said.