Modelling controversies: Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion

Science communication
Fleischmann and Pons holding 'cold fusion' experiment
Fleischmann and Pons holding ‘cold fusion’ experiment

In 1989, two chemists claimed that they had produced cold fusion (fusion that would occur at room temperate) through a simple experiment. The chemists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann became overnight sensations.

Pons and Fleischmann had been collaborating with a research team headed by Steven E Jones from Brigham Young University. The two teams, having shared research and techniques, had agreed to submit their research papers to the journal Nature simultaneously.

However, Fleischmann and Pons were supposedly pressured into submitting their paper to the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry and issuing a press release by the University of Utah as the institution wanted ownership of the discovery.

Unfortunately, the announcement of their findings were premature and the cold fusion story has become a case study for sensational scientific controversy. 

Modelling the cold fusion controversy with Turner’s four stages

To briefly explain the cold fusion controversy, I’ll use a controversial framework from an anthropologist called Victor Turner. Turner asserted that social dramas (or controversies) have four main phases of observable public action.

  1. Breach: a public and obvious breach in a norm that regulated behaviour
  2. Crisis: the breach increases and separates the groups of people concerned
  3. Redressive action: an action occurs which limits the crisis by adjusting and addressing the issue
  4. Reintegration: the crisis is resolved and the initiator of the crisis is reintegrated into society along with any changes that occurred during the redressive stage

During the cold fusion controversy:

  1. A breach occurred when Pons and Fleischmann prematurely announced that they had successfully achieved cold fusion. They acted against standard procedure by holding a press conference before the paper had been peer reviewed and replicated by their peers in the science community.
  2. During the following months, a crisis occurred in which claims of similarly achieving cold fusion were rare and often retracted. Meanwhile, Pons and Fleischmann stuck to their aims that their discovery would address problems of fuel scarcity and anthropogenic global warming. The majority of hype in the media occurred at this time.
  3. Redressive action during the cold fusion controversy was a matter of the America Physical Society holding a session to discuss Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion claims. Of the nine people who voted on the matter, eight elected to dismiss their claims.
  4. Pons and Fleischmann resumed working. Fleischmann eventually began to teach at London University, Durhma University and, in 1967, was appointed professor of electrochemistry at Southhampton University. Fleichmann and Pons did meet again and worked on their cold fusion theory from 1992 to 1995.

Though the case of Pons and Fleischmann is the most notable, other controversy around cold fusion has occurred throughout the years. Next time, we’ll look at the case of John Bockris. A professor in the physical sciences whose claims about cold fusion caused controversy and secured the 1997 Ig Nobel Prize. For now, if you’d like to see some of the Pons and Fleischmann press conference unfold, have a look at this video.

4 thoughts on “Modelling controversies: Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion

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