Every great idea has three stages of reaction: 1) It won’t work. 2) Even if it works, it’s not useful. 3) I said it was a great idea all along. --Arthur C. Clark
It has been almost three months since two obscure chemists at the University of Utah held a press conference to announce that they had found something truly incredible in their test tube. Their reported discovery of cold fusion, if accurate, would usher not only science but all aspects of modern life into an era of growth and improvement that mankind has not experienced since the Industrial Revolution.
Not everybody was happy with this news.
The vehemence with which B. Stanley Pons and Milton Fleischmann were denounced in the scientific community, the ferocity of attack on their work, as well as on their personal styles and motivations, surprised everyone. Well, that is, everyone who hasn’t taken a look at the history of science.
History records that Copernicus was so afraid of reaction to his novel theory--the Earth revolves around the sun--that he kept silent about it until he lay on his death bed.
People refused to look through Galileo’s powerful telescope, so strong was their fear of having to change their world-view. Galileo himself stood trial for heresy and was forced publicly, on the threat of death, to recant his theories.
In the 17th Century, Antony van Leeuwenhoek was ridiculed by his scientific colleagues for the outrageous claim that organisms--germs--too small to be seen nevertheless exist.
Surgeons refused for years, out of stubborn resistence to change, to follow the method of Joseph Lister, who disinfected his operating area and would not use the same instruments for consecutive operations.
And in Europe, the powers of the day heaped scorn on the idea that a steam engine could have a practical use in transportation, which sent Robert Fulton to America with his plans for a steam-powered boat.
As recently as 1956, the Astronomer Royal of England scoffed at space travel as “utter bilge.” The very next year, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.
So, some of us were not surprised at the recriminations, both petty and sweeping, that deluged the two poor chemists in Utah upon their claims of discovering cold fusion.
The high priests of physics were annoyed with the scientists’ method of public announcement; several universities touted their inability to reproduce in a matter of weeks results arrived at over a period of years, and physicists the world over continue to express pique at the presumption of two chemists entering their realm.
For all of the pencil-jabbing and eraser-throwing, and even after the discouraging words from Britain this week, we still don’t know whether Pons and Fleischmann have discovered a key to the universe or not. All we know is that what is at stake for many people is their view of the world and hence their view of themselves in that world--and for small, petty people without vision or curiosity, such stakes make for anger and fear.
There are other stakes involved as well. Many scientists and researchers envision losing their life’s work--and their federal grants--to this discovery of cold fusion in Utah. Fundamental change is, more often than not, uncomfortable. Federally subsidized science, which is by its very nature based on accepted premises, and which has as much interest in justifying its own expense as in discovering “truth,” seems to have stoked the coals of this controversy and added to the discomfort.
This is not to say that Pons and Fleischmann have indeed discovered cold fusion in their laboratory. Actually, having heard their testimony before the Science, Space and Technology Committee of the House, and having followed the controversy, I’d give them somewhere around a 50% chance of being vindicated someday.
Whether or not such vindication emerges in time, let’s give Pons and Fleischmann a chance for now. They have done nothing wrong, and they well may have accomplished something that will benefit every human being on this planet, forever. Our world needs such people who are willing to look where others refuse, to reject commonly held premises in the quest for new truths and to step before us with brave new ideas knowing that vilification will follow, even if history ultimately vindicates them. If cold fusion does fly, Pons and Fleischmann will be remembered as men who changed the course of human history; if cold fusion turns out to be a worktable mistake, well, let’s remember Pons and Fleischmann as two men who excited our imaginations for a while and who reminded us that we should not discourage pursuit of scientific knowledge, even if it flouts conventional wisdom--even if it is done without the benefit of a federal grant.