Politics can take different forms, and we're seeing some heavy-handed politics in the fusion argument raging in the scientific world and in the media.
Are B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann great scientists who used simple logic to unlock one of the universe's great secrets?Or are they charlatans who bungled their experiments and now stand naked in a world of criticism?
You could reach either conclusion, depending on whom you listened to this past week.
Being by nature a skeptical journalist who lives to see the Establishment kicked in the pants, I'm hoping it's the former, not the latter.
Physicists have been trying to produce nuclear fusion for years, spending billoions of dollars-much of it our taxpayer money-building huge, expensive machines that try to re-create the high temperatures and massive pressures in our sun-the life-giving reactor of fusion.
Oh, they may get a little fusion, but so far it's useless, practically speaking, because it takes a whole lot more energy to fuse a couple of hydrogen atoms into a helium atom than is given off in the process.
So, when Pons and Fleischmann said they had fusion in a little bottle, that it gave off eight times more energy than it took to start it, well, the psysicists saw their life work--and their paychecks--going down the old nuclear drain.
They were madder than heck that Pons and Fleischmann dared called a press conference to announce their work. Scientific tradition says you publish in incredibly boring scientific journals first, then wait months or years until other scientists recreate your experiment. Then you call it Science, with a capital S.
To add insult to injury, it was a couple of chemists, not physicists, who found this. And now these chemists, with a couple of turncoat physicists, say they have a nuclear theory to explain it.
Many of the physicists who attended this week's conference of the American Physical Society tried, with inadequate information, to duplicate Pon's and Fleischmann's experiment. It took the two University of Utah researchers five years to make the experiments work, and when the physicists couldn't duplicate them in two weeks, they said the U.'s researchers were fakes.
This all reminds me of Galileo Galilei.
He improved the telescope, using it for the first time to study the stars accurately; developed several breakthrough physical theories; and was one of the greatest thinkers and scientists who ever lived.
But he had a problem. He didn't accept the traditional theory of the universe--put forth by Aristotle a couple of thousand years before. Galileo's observations led him to support and write about Nicolaus Copernicus' revolutionary theory that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun.
Well, the Catholic Church and other Establishment-types of the early 1600s didn't like this at all. For hundreds of years, considerable time and effort had gone into proving just the opposite. (They didn't have big hot-fusion machines that cost billions of dollars back then, but you get the comparison.)
Galileo was called before the Inquisition and forced to confess that he was wrong--under threat of having his legs broken--and that the sun really revolved around the Earth.
Galileo was found guilty. He died a broken, blind man under house arrest, watch ed by the Inquisition's thugs. For 200 years the Catholic Church banned Copernicus' books.
You know what? The Earth kept going around the sun. And heat keeps coming out of Pons' and Fleischmann's experiments.