Wednesday, August 8, 2012

RIP Fleischmann, "Cold Fusion" Creator

It's not every day my Google News feed proclaims a famous chemist's passing. So it was that the AP relayed the obituary of Martin Fleischmann, one half of the Fleischmann / Pons duo that first reported table-top, room temperature energy production from an electrochemical cell, dubbed "cold fusion." 

1989: At a University of Utah press conference, Fleischmann (r)
and Pons announce their results, two weeks ahead of publication.
The Fleischmann story provides a parable for the perils of overselling early results. Ironically, Fleischmann had already made quite a career for himself: he'd been made a Royal Society Fellow years before the cold fusion controversy.

I won't go too deeply into the scientific frenzy the scientists' impromptu press conference generated (see Curious Wavefunction for a recap). But the sage Santayana paraphrase "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it" seems apt, given the recent GFAJ-1 / 'arsenic life' debacle. Turns out, exciting results demand replication, and this publicity can bring more attention than you augured for. 

When the press calls, you'd better have the extraordinary evidence to back up your claims.