In 1989, chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann reported that they had achieved cold fusion. “Cold fusion” refers to a type of nuclear reaction that takes place at temperatures far below the several million degrees that are usually required for the reaction. It’s not known whether cold fusion is possible. When the report came out it garnered enormous media attention. Fusion would be a source of cheap and relatively safe energy. Any process that could generate fusion energy – cold or otherwise – is big news.
Unfortunately, subsequent investigations failed to confirm the early reports. Part of the problem was that Fleischmann and Pons were reluctant to publish details of their work, fearing that others would steal it. Considering that the technology was potentially worth many billions of dollars, this fear was reasonable. Because of this and other problems, most investigators were unable to replicate the results of Fleischmann and Pons.
Cold fusion, at least insofar as described by Pons and Fleischmann, was a bust. Inevitably, conspiracy theories abound. Big Oil bribed them to retract their claims, jealous scientists banded together to suppress the new technology, and so on. Take your pick – there are dozens of these theories.
The response of the scientific community to this report was reasonable. Scientists were skeptical, but open to the possibility. Although there’s no known mechanism that creates cold fusion, there is no scientific principle that says it’s impossible. That being the case, when recognized scientists claim to have accomplished cold fusion, the claim merits a closer look. That’s what happened in this case. Scientists took a closer look, found that the claim could not be supported, and moved on to other things.
Fleischmann and Pons deviated from standard scientific procedure by announcing their discovery to the lay media, instead of limiting it to peer-reviewed scientific periodicals. This departure caused serious problems. There was the inevitable media circus, making it difficult for other scientists to try to replicate the experiment. The premature disclosure also harmed the credibility of scientists by announcing a discovery later found to be groundless. It created a perception that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.