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Weird Physics

Section 14 – Cold Fusion and Prometheus

Pons and Fleischmann brought us the concept of cold fusion, wherein two deuterium atoms (each having one proton and one neutron in the nucleus) trapped inside a special metal crystal lattice might be squeezed at a pinch-point and encouraged to merge into a helium atom (having two protons and two neutrons).  This would be a cheap and safe (room temperature) way to make fusion power in quantities that would change humanity.  Their early experiments with electrodes seemed to give bursts of energy that were otherwise unexplainable.

Pons and Fleischmann were essentially crucified after they announced their findings in the popular press.  Part of it was that they bypassed the normal slow peer-review process and announced their findings without corroboration from anyone else, risking that their conclusions might not be valid.  But there was much more.  Emotions ran very high as prominent scientists gleefully pounced on their work and maligned it.  They had set themselves up as a target several ways.  One was that they had pronounced their work more important than everybody else’s, in claiming that they were compelled by the social impact of their work to bypass the peer-review process.  Another is that their work put other scientists, who were committed to Manhattan-Project scale nuclear power plants, into a very poor light – if not making them out to be idiots.   Jobs, reputations, and careers were at stake.  Another is that, like Tesla, they were proposing something that would break the monopoly of the power industry, and you know what kind of dirty politics you can get into when you threaten a monopoly.

Interesting if you plot the series of published values of the Boltzmann constant over time, as scientists refined their measurement.  It started out 2.5% low, then slowly drifted up with each published measurement as it approached the ultimately accepted value used today.  Odd because you would expect error to be random, sometimes high, sometimes low, and narrow down the spread as precision improved.  The slow slide from below suggests that there was a selectivity about what got published.  Too far off from the last published value and the results were disbelieved, either by the author or the publisher.  Another example of peer pressure beyond belief, even in such a little thing.

A small dedicated underground of workers continued to believe in the work of Pons and Fleischmann, and continue to search for ways to expand on the original cold fusion work.

Let’s focus on the “proof” that was eventually held up by its antagonists as the definitive reason that cold fusion would not work.  When this reaction happens in gas phase, there is a change in angular momentum (spin) that has to be accounted for.  The only way this could be done in gas phase was for the reaction to emit a “neutrino” – a massless particle that could best be described as a self-propagating wave of angular momentum, somewhat analogous to the classic view of a photon.  Neutrinos are often observed in the stew of fragmented wave functions spewing out of stars and so on, but you can’t trap them.  They pass right through most matter, including the Earth.  They are very transitory.  They are not such stable things that a chemist can put them in a bottle on the shelf.  The Pons and Fleishmann experiments generated NO neutrinos, therefore the reasoning went, there was no fusion going on.

Now, if that reaction happens per the dictates of cold fusion theory, it is in close proximity to the metal crystal lattice, in fact it is being squeezed by it.  Why in the world would you not expect this to be an alternate way to shed angular momentum?  If the crystal is squeezing and twisting the deuterium, it could be coupled enough to absorb angular momentum from the resulting Helium that is produced.  The crystal vibrates, magnetic moments can be flipped in the crystal, and so forth.  The supposed negative proof is invalid since it assumes that gas phase fusion reactions would be unchanged in the condensed phase.  This is the area where we need to focus our study moving forward – how the crystal is serving as a catalyst for the reaction.  There was some suggestion from various attempts to duplicate the work that shock waves traveling through the crystal were important to the effect.  Makes sense that if that precipitates the pinching action.

So how does that bit of history compare to the theories set forth in work you are reading now?  Well, this new work calls into question the activities of many, many people with large egos, and it will threaten the comfort, reputation, fortunes, and careers of many people if found to be correct.  It could even upset the military-industrial complex and make them worry that it might affect the nuclear arms race.  It could conceivably lead humanity to the tools it needs to either get off this planet or exterminate itself.  I expect a backlash much like what Pons & Fleischmann experienced, providing it gets into the limelight at all.  Quite possibly it would never be published by a corporation that is now sensitive to these issues.   This work is so “far out there” that peer review is out of the question, it is going to have to go to the popular press and slowly trickle into the culture like it was science fiction.  If not for the internet it would not see the light of cold emotionless scientific scrutiny for generations – hence it is first appearing as a blog.

But I really have nothing to lose from a backlash – my livelihood is not in the field of modern physics, nor do I have a reputation there to uphold.  My only hope is to plant the seeds for future generations to think critically about what they are being taught, and to continue the search for underlying explanations to physical phenomena, never accepting “because” as an answer.

Maybe I’m totally wrong, but I want people to look for alternatives.  Right now the people teaching quantum mechanics don’t expect their students to understand it, and discourage attempts to do so (they couldn’t) telling them to accept it on faith.  Questioning the work of the greats is treated like sacrilege and Einstein is put on an altar.  One famous saying, used to discourage the wrong kind of curiosity, is that “Only three people really understand all this, and two of them don’t believe it, so don’t try.  Ha, ha.”

My discomfort with modern physics as it was being taught me as an undergraduate made me perk up my ears when I heard that the “foremost critic of Relativity Theory” was coming to give a lecture.  This charlatan claimed that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (a consequence of wave mechanics, that you can specify position or energy of a particle/wave, but not both simultaneously) was anticipated by the Eastern Mystics (I was also taking a class world religions at the time), in their claim that the senses were imperfect and that the world was an illusion of subjective observations.  He said the Eastern Mystics beat the Western World to an understanding of Quantum Mechanics.  This guy spouted this nonsense and smirked, while a roomful of eminent scientists stroked their chins, saying “hmm”, trying to act like they understood, trying not to look stupid and failing.  He was playing on their faith in something they didn’t understand themselves.  It was then that I became sure that modern physics as it was being taught was a religion, not a science.

And so, 30 years later, I offer you something else, possibly a better way to try and understand the Universe.  I hope I don’t get the Prometheus treatment for it.

[© Copyright 2016 by Gerald Keep.  All Rights Reserved.]

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