Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking - Charles Seife (2008)
Chapter 8. BUBBLE TROUBLE
Hegel observes somewhere that all great incidents and individuals of world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
—KARL MARX, THE 18TH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS NAPOLEON
The mere mention of cold fusion made everyone bristle. The scientists, the press office, the editor of the magazine all objected to anyone’s using the term. But the phrase was soon echoing across the nation. It was on the front pages, in the evening television broadcasts, and plastered all over the press. Cold fusion rides again. History seemed to be repeating itself.
The controversy seemed familiar from the start. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, both well-respected institutions, claimed that they had created fusion in a little beaker of acetone not much bigger than the original Pons and Fleischmann cell. In many ways, though, this situation was very different from cold fusion. Rather than announcing their results at a press conference, the scientists sent them to Science magazine, the most prestigious peer-reviewed journal in the United States, and their paper had been accepted. The scientists weren’t saying they had discovered dramatically new physics, as Pons and Fleischmann’s palladium-catalyzed fusion would have required. These bubble fusion reactions were supposedly happening at tens of millions of degrees, rather than at room temperature.
But like cold fusion, the bubble fusion researchers believed their work could lead to an unlimited source of energy. And like Pons and Fleischmann, the bubble fusion scientists quickly came under attack by some of the leading fusion physicists in the nation. Even before their paper had been published in Science, the bubble fusion scientists were labeled as incompetent. It got worse after publication. Increasingly isolated, they were forced toward the fringe, and before long they were fighting accusations of scientific misconduct and a fraud investigation that led all the way to Capitol Hill. History had repeated itself.
The bubble fusion imbroglio was a twisted reflection of the cold-fusion affair. The second time around, the tale would be a tragedy as well as a farce. Researchers, peer reviewers, editors, journalists, press officers, and all the other players in the drama were caught in a colossal web of mutual misunderstanding. It was a story of good intentions gone wrong, of paranoia and mistrust, and of hubris that led to the downfall of a scientist.
When the bubble fusion story broke in 2002, I was a reporter for Science, ground zero for the controversy.
Science is famous because it is arguably the premier peer-reviewed scientific journal in the United States. For many scientists, a publication in it (or its British rival, Nature) would be considered a major coup, perhaps even the crowning achievement in an average scientific career. Researchers from around the world submit manuscripts to Science, and it is an enormous task to examine the submissions and select those worth publishing.
I had nothing to do with the peer-reviewed section of Science. I worked for the news pages at the front of the magazine. News reporters at Science are deliberately isolated from the peer-reviewed section. We weren’t told about manuscripts in the pipeline, or about the status of a paper undergoing peer review. We weren’t even allowed to know who the peer reviewers of a given manuscript were.67 So I was quite surprised when, on February 5, 2002, my editor, Robert Coontz, e-mailed me a paper entitled “Nuclear Emissions during Acoustic Cavitation.” It had already been through the peer-review process, but it wasn’t an ordinary manuscript. “Here’s a Science paper that’s likely to be very controversial,” Coontz wrote. “First task is to decide whether we want to cover it.” Within a few seconds, I knew it was going to be explosive.
The manuscript was couched in the typical cold, technical language of the scientific paper, but its authors, a team led by Rusi Taleyarkhan at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, were making a claim that seemed eerily reminiscent of cold fusion. They claimed to have induced fusion reactions on a tabletop using a process that might lead to energy production. More important, they did it in an ingenious, and seemingly plausible, way. They did it with a technique linked to a mysterious phenomenon known as sonoluminescence.
As early as the 1930s, scientists had discovered a bizarre method to convert sound into light. If you take a tub of liquid and bombard it with sound waves in the correct manner, the tub begins to generate tiny little bubbles that glow with a faint blue light. This phenomenon is not perfectly understood, but scientists are pretty sure they know what is going on, at least in gross terms.
If you have ever belly flopped off a diving board, you know that a liquid like water doesn’t always behave quite like a fluid. Hit it hard enough and fast enough, faster than the water can flow out of your way, and it feels almost like concrete. It behaves more like a solid than like a liquid. This is more than a mere metaphor. Under certain circumstances—if you hit a liquid in the right way—it will “crack” just as a solid would. The liquid ruptures, creating tiny vacuum-filled bubbles that instantly fill with a tiny bit of evaporated liquid. This phenomenon is known as cavitation, and it occurs in a number of different places. Submarine propellers, for example, cause cavitation if they spin too fast. Sound waves rattling through a fluid can also create these bubbles.
Under the right conditions, the sound waves reverberating through the liquid also cause these bubbles to compress and expand, compress and expand. Each time the bubbles are squashed by the sound waves, they heat up. If the sound waves are just right, the bubble can collapse to roughly one-tenth its original size, heating up to tens of thousands of degrees and emitting a flash of light. This is sonoluminescence.
Taleyarkhan wondered what was happening at the center of those collapsing bubbles. What would happen if you replaced water with a deuterium-laden liquid? If those bubbles got squashed far enough and became hot enough, could they induce the little bit of deuterium vapor in the center of the bubble to fuse? Could they induce a fusion reaction in a beaker?
The first problem he encountered was that tens of thousands of degrees isn’t nearly enough to induce fusion, so ordinary sonoluminescence didn’t have any hope of getting deuterium nuclei to stick together. For fusion, Taleyarkhan needed to heat deuterium and to tens of millions of degrees, a thousand times hotter than what traditional sonoluminescence could achieve. The only way to get those temperatures was to compress the bubbles far more than had ever been done before, either by squashing them tighter or by starting with bigger bubbles. Taleyarkhan had figured out an innovative way to do the latter.
His research team started with a solution of deuterated acetone, the same molecule that’s in nail polish remover, except for the fact that its six hydrogen atoms have been replaced with deuteriums. Then they irradiated the liquid with energetic neutrons and exposed it to sound waves. The energetic neutrons poured their energy into the solution and birthed very large bubbles—tens or hundreds of times larger than the ordinary bubbles in sonoluminescence—and, according to Taleyarkhan and his colleagues, the sound waves compressed them by a factor of ten thousand. This was a much higher compression than had ever been observed before. Taleyarkhan’s calculations implied that this extreme compression led to a temperature in the range of millions of degrees. This, in turn, supposedly led to fusion.
To all appearances, Taleyarkhan and his colleagues did all the right things when they went looking for deuterium-deuterium fusion. The paper told of how the researchers looked for neutrons—and found them. Tritium? Found it. They also avoided many of Pons and Fleischmann’s mistakes. They ran the obvious control experiments, substituting ordinary acetone for the deuterated variety. The neutrons and tritium disappeared. Finally, the paper convinced a science editor and a group of peer reviewers who, presumably, were satisfied with its quality.
But I was skeptical. For one thing, I knew Taleyarkhan, and while I held him in reasonably high esteem, I didn’t think of him as a fusion expert. A few years earlier—in 1999, when I was a reporter for New Scientist magazine—I had written about one of his inventions. He had figured out a clever way to make a gun that would shoot bullets at different speeds. In theory, you would be able to turn a dial on a gun and set it to “stun” with low-velocity bullets or to “kill” with high-velocity ones. (It used an aluminum-based propellant that could do things ordinary gunpowder couldn’t.) Interesting stuff, but not the sort of thing a fusion expert would invent. Taleyarkhan was a nuclear engineer, and I associated him with steam explosions and propellants and reactor safety, not fusion physics. What really bothered me, though, were the neutrons.
The bubble fusion paper was going to live or die by the neutrons Taleyarkhan was claiming to see. Neutrons were what killed Pons and Fleischmann. Neutrons were what killed ZETA. Without a nice, clear demonstration of neutrons of the proper energy—2.45 MeV—streaming from the experimental cell, nobody would take Taleyarkhan seriously for a minute. So the first thing I looked at was the paper’s graph of neutrons. I was surprised.
Skeptical physicists would only be convinced by a detailed graph showing how many neutrons were detected at what sorts of energies. Taleyarkhan’s paper had a few graphs, but they were far from detailed. The main one only had four points—two for the deuterium experiment and two for the control experiment—telling how many neutrons were detected above and below 2.5 MeV. That wasn’t nearly enough, at least in my opinion. I expected a neutron spectrum to have tens of points, not two. Without that level of detail, I didn’t think that there was enough information to determine whether the experimenters were seeing something real.
I was uneasy. The content of the graph did not rule out the claim of fusion. Taleyarkhan’s team may well have seen neutrons that were drop-dead evidence of fusion. But if they did, I couldn’t tell from the graph. If they had confirmatory data, they were not presenting it in a convincing way. If they didn’t know how to convince other scientists of their claims, I suspected that they didn’t know enough about the field to make such claims in the first place.
That was my initial impression. But as a journalist, I’ve learned that first impressions are very often wrong. In fact, I wanted to be convinced that I had erred in my snap judgment, if for no other reason than I thought it would make a better story if Taleyarkhan was correct. Furthermore, I knew that the manuscript had gone through Science’s peer-review process. The editor who had handled the manuscript—I presumed that it was our physics editor, Ian Osborne—did not laugh it out of the room when he read it. The peer reviewers (whose identities I didn’t know) had also, presumably, vetted the manuscript and found it worthy of publication. This certainly did not ensure that Taleyarkhan and his colleagues were right, but it did theoretically mean that there were no obvious flaws.
I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I wanted to figure out whether bubble fusion was real. If it was, it could be the biggest science news to come around in a long time. I wrote back to Coontz. Of course I wanted to cover the story.
When Coontz first sent me the paper on February 5, he told me of an additional complication. The editors were afraid of an embargo break.
The embargo system is the dirty little secret of science journalism. Over the past few decades, science journalists entered into a compact with peer-reviewed journals like Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine. The journals provide copies of manuscripts to reporters a few days ahead of publication; these journalists, in return, agree not to tell the public about the manuscripts until the embargo expires, usually the evening before the peer-reviewed journal is published. Journalists who break the embargo, publishing ahead of the set time, are threatened with the loss of access to advance manuscripts, putting them at a great disadvantage with respect to their peers who abide by the rules. Nonetheless, some stories are so juicy that reporters can’t resist; word inevitably leaks out before the embargo expires (often the fault of British newspapers, whose reporters are particularly jumpy). The embargo breaks, and it’s a free-for-all.
Bubble fusion was obviously a juicy story, so the slightest word leaking to the press could trigger a media feeding frenzy. It was crucial to the editors that nothing be reported in the newspapers until the final version of the manuscript was ready. If the press started talking about the experiment before the paper was available, it could easily be a repeat of the cold-fusion disaster—science by press conference. It would not be fair to Taleyarkhan and his colleagues, who went through the peer-review process, to open them to accusations of subverting the system. Security had to be extraordinarily tight.
The paper was to be published on February 14. I was asked not to contact any scientists other than the authors until February 8, so that word of the paper wouldn’t spread. It wasn’t an extraordinary request, and I could certainly hold off on some of the phone calls for three days. But I had to contact Taleyarkhan right away. After I digested the paper, I sent him an e-mail to set up an interview; I also asked whether he was the same Taleyarkhan of the variable-speed bullets.
He was. He remembered the story I had written in 1999 and hinted darkly in his e-mail reply that the government might try to keep bubble fusion a secret, just as they had done with his earlier research. “Right after you did your story my project got classified. I hope something like this does not happen to this area. That would be a shame.” In the rest of the note Taleyarkhan clearly showed that he thought he had made an important discovery. “This current area could have somewhat revolutionary and far-reaching consequences with very significant impacts on everyday life and a variety of disciplines (ranging from materials synthesis to medicine to food sterilization to counter-terrorism to power production and the like).” Power production. There it was. He hedged, and he put it last in his list, but it was there. Taleyarkhan thought he had found a path to fusion energy. This was going to be a big story, one way or another. Taleyarkhan and I made an appointment to speak on Friday, February 8. On the evening of February 6, I learned that the bubble fusion article was on hold. Taleyarkhan’s employer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was trying to apply the brakes. Gil Gilliland, an associate director of Oak Ridge, apparently called Science and complained that the paper had not yet passed Oak Ridge’s internal review process, which had been ongoing since November. (This was an unusually long time to spend on a review.) Gilliland promised to get the review finished as soon as humanly possible, and the manuscript was rescheduled for publication on March 8. I was asked to hold off on the interviews until the paper was back on track. I didn’t know it at the time, but the scene at Oak Ridge was getting ugly.
In fact, a battle was brewing. A number of physicists at the laboratory were extremely doubtful of the bubble fusion research, and their doubt triggered a flurry of activity behind the scenes. Shortly after Taleyarkhan submitted the manuscript—with Oak Ridge’s permission—to Science, the skepticism in the lab began to mount. Lab officials apparently asked two other Oak Ridge scientists, Dan Shapira and Michael Saltmarsh, to repeat the bubble fusion experiment. Saltmarsh was a fusion scientist who had testified before Congress about the cold-fusion affair. Shapira studied exotic fusion reactions induced by high-energy beams of ions. Both had the expertise to find neutrons from bubble fusion—if those neutrons existed.
Calling for other scientists to repeat an experiment before publication was an extremely unusual step, and it likely struck Taleyarkhan as a vote of no confidence, but Oak Ridge insisted. The lab seemed determined to avoid becoming the center of another cold-fusion fiasco. So, with Taleyarkhan’s assistance, Shapira and Saltmarsh set up an exact copy of the bubble fusion experiment, except for one detail: they used a bigger and better neutron detector. Not only was it physically larger (making it more sensitive, because more neutrons could strike it), but it also had more sophisticated electronics. Unlike Taleyarkhan’s detector, it could tell the difference between neutrons and gamma rays.
When Shapira and Saltmarsh analyzed the data they had gathered, the results were damning. They found no sign of fusion, no evidence for neutron emission from the bubbling deuterated acetone. They did not try to verify Taleyarkhan’s findings of tritium, but noted that if the tritium had been produced by fusion, the bubbling solution should have produced a million neutrons per second, and that level of activity should easily have been picked up by the neutron detector. According to their equipment, though, nothing was happening in the bubbling liquid, just the expected number of chirps caused by stray neutrons produced by cosmic rays and the like. (And since the team members were making bubbles by zapping the tank with neutrons, a heck of a lot of those particles were skittering about in the background.)
Oak Ridge was in a bind. They were about to look foolish. One of their researchers was about to publish what they considered a bad piece of research that would spark a second cold-fusion fiasco. And they were increasingly powerless to stop it. The lab had already given Taleyarkhan permission to seek publication, and Science had already accepted and reviewed the manuscript. Yet Oak Ridge seemed to have an experiment that blew the Taleyarkhan discovery out of the water. They were rapidly running out of options.
Scrapping the paper ceased to be a possibility the moment Taleyarkhan had sent the paper to the journal. However, Oak Ridge’s objections had slowed publication by a few weeks. In that time, the lab moved fast to try to reduce the impending damage. Shapira and Saltmarsh quickly typed up their results in a short report and sent it over to Science, hoping the two papers would be published side by side. The negative report, if accepted, would at least force readers to cast a skeptical eye on the claims of bubble fusion; Oak Ridge wouldn’t look quite so bad when other researchers poked holes in Taleyarkhan’s work. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option, either. Any scientific manuscript in Science had to be peer reviewed, and the Shapira-Saltmarsh paper was no exception. There was no way that a new paper could be sent to reviewers, receive comments, and be revised in time to make the March 8 issue. (And it was becoming increasingly clear that holding beyond March 8 would be impossible; word of Taleyarkhan’s paper was beginning to leak out.) Oak Ridge had no options left. The world would soon learn about bubble fusion, even though Shapira and Saltmarsh had shown that it was almost certainly a fiction.
I was back on the case on the afternoon of Wednesday, February 20. The Science editors had decided to go ahead and publish the article on March 8, and while formal approval had not yet come through from Oak Ridge, they had assurances that it would come shortly. (And it did.) I was given the green light to begin reporting again, but I was warned to tread carefully to avoid leaks. I immediately e-mailed Taleyarkhan again and set up an interview. That part was easy. The hard part was figuring whom else to talk to.
I needed to speak to outside researchers, people not in Taleyarkhan’s research group. Only then would I get a reasonably objective opinion on the quality of the paper. At this stage, I couldn’t show the manuscript to anyone who hadn’t yet seen it; I couldn’t be responsible for a leak this far ahead of publication. So I had to figure out who had already seen the paper—I had to find the paper’s reviewers.
Nobody at Science would tell me who they were. The reviewers are kept confidential, even from the reporters who work for the same magazine. But I could guess. The Taleyarkhan paper crossed two fairly established disciplines, sonoluminescence and fusion. Just a few groups had been studying sonoluminescence for years. Lawrence Crum led one at the University of Washington, Seth Putterman led another at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Ken Suslick ran a third at the University of Illinois. I was fairly certain that at least one of these scientists had been a reviewer. The fusion side of the paper was tougher. It was a bigger field, with many more researchers. I figured that the most likely candidates were those who knew about the nitty-gritty of neutron detection. If anyone would be able to bolster or tear down Taleyarkhan’s work, it would be a neutron expert. In fact, if I were to pick reviewers for the manuscript, I would choose some of the physicists who had dissected the cold-fusion papers. They would certainly approach the paper with a skeptical eye, and if they were convinced, the paper would automatically get a huge amount of credibility.
I began making discreet inquiries.68 On the sonoluminescence end, I called Crum and struck pay dirt. (As it turned out, all three of the big names in sonoluminescence—Crum, Putterman, and Suslick—had been reviewers.) I got the distinct impression that the sonoluminescence people were impressed by Taleyarkhan’s technique, if a bit skeptical about his team’s conclusions. Crum, at the very least, seemed particularly interested in Taleyarkhan’s method of creating large bubbles with a beam of neutrons and thought it might open some new opportunities for research. (“I thought, doggone! I’m depressed I hadn’t done that experiment,” Crum told me. “It’s a remarkable result, and I would like very much for this to be true.”) So the sonoluminescence end of the experiment seemed relatively solid, at least from my limited reporting.
By that time, the editors had given me more detailed neutron data from Taleyarkhan’s lab. The new information didn’t assuage my doubts. I was no expert at interpreting such data, but they didn’t look quite right. They were muddy; the shape of the peaks in the graph didn’t appear the way I expected them to. These were just my gut instincts, but they emphasized my need to find a neutron expert.
When the time came for my interview with Taleyarkhan, I found him open and friendly. He was happy to tell me all about the research. I confirmed that he was, quite naturally, enthusiastic about the quality of the results—including the neutrons he was detecting. However, no matter how confident Taleyarkhan was, he was not going to be the person who could assure me about the quality of the research. I still had not found a neutron expert who had already seen the paper, especially since I was still supposed to be very discreet. That problem was about to be made moot.
I had sensed that the editors at Science were getting increasingly tense. By the twenty-sixth, I had heard rumors in the building that somebody was trying to pressure the journal to reject the Taleyarkhan paper, and that Science’s editor in chief, Don Kennedy, was hopping mad. I didn’t know anything more for certain until the morning of February 27, when Coontz passed me a cryptic note. He told me I had to call Princeton’s Will Happer and IBM’s Dick Garwin.
Happer and Garwin were legendary figures in the community. They were the big guns of fusion (and of nuclear weapons). Garwin had helped design Ivy Mike; Happer was a former head of the government’s JASON panel. Both had been at the top of the scientific hierarchy for decades and had been involved in debunking cold fusion. They weren’t reviewers of the manuscript—I was pretty certain of that—but clearly they had seen it. And they apparently had some very strong opinions that they expressed to Don Kennedy.69
I didn’t know what Happer and Garwin said, but I knew that Kennedy was furious. He felt that outsiders were trying to disrupt the peer-review process and derail a paper that had already been accepted for publication. “There was certainly pressure from Oak Ridge to delay, if not to kill, the paper,” Kennedy told me when I interviewed him. “I’m annoyed at the intervention, I’m annoyed at the assumptions that non-authors had the authority to exercise constraints on the publication and telling us we couldn’t publish the paper—which they did.”
I called Happer and began to piece together what was going on. (Garwin was in China at the time but I soon got his side of the story, too.) Someone—I never found out for sure who it was—had sent Garwin and Happer each a copy of the Taleyarkhan manuscript and a copy of the Shapira-Saltmarsh paper. Both then e-mailed Kennedy. Garwin was harsh and succinct:
I understand there has been some discussion as to whether Science , having accepted the paper, should nevertheless not print it. I certainly don’t want to enter into such a discussion with you.
But I do want to tell you that I have read both papers carefully, and that I think the odds are extremely high that this “discovery” is simply error and incompetence.
So I caution you to mute the natural enthusiasm of people on your team who want to publish the latest significant discovery.
Happer’s note was longer and more involved, but he, too, urged Kennedy not to hype the results, likening it to cold fusion and polywater:70
I am told that the paper in question, the most recent version of which has the title “Evidence for Nuclear Emissions During Acoustic Cavitation,” will have a place on the cover of “Science” when it is published, and will be accompanied by additional laudatory editorials and sidebars. I may well be misinformed about this, but if I am not, I hope I can persuade you to exercise your authority as Editor in Chief to stop these plans....
Giving the Taleyarkhan paper lots of publicity in “Science” would damage the credibility of the magazine and would do quite a bit of harm to our scientific community. I have seen several examples of similar episodes in my career, for example, polywater and cold fusion. Both episodes caused lasting damage to science.
Happer strongly argued that the Taleyarkhan paper was in error, and said that several other prominent fusion researchers (including the laser fusion scientist John Nuckolls) had concluded that Taleyarkhan was flat-out wrong. But at the same time, Happer insisted that he wasn’t trying to block publication. “I like Science; I’m a member of AAAS,71 and I don’t want them to shoot themselves in the foot—or some other body part,” Happer told me. “All I told him was, for God’s sake don’t put it on the cover of Science.” Garwin was a little more oblique about what Science should do with the bubble fusion manuscript. “It would be unfortunate if Science magazine were to take any position on its correctness,” he said.
There’s no question in my mind that Happer and Garwin would have been happy if Science had pulled the Taleyarkhan paper. They were convinced (as I was becoming) that bubble fusion was a fiction. However, I think that by the time they contacted Kennedy, they knew that Science was likely to publish the paper. They just wanted to minimize the damage to Oak Ridge and to the journal and, above all, to science. Don’t hype the results. Don’t put it on the cover. Don’t go out on a limb for bubble fusion.
Kennedy, not unreasonably, interpreted the notes slightly differently. He saw it as a last-ditch attempt by Oak Ridge to quash publication. His response to Happer was measured, if indignant. Science editors had taken exceptional care with the manuscript, he insisted, and the review process had led to a firm recommendation to publish:
Concern on the part of research managers from ORNL appeared late in the game, followed by some secondary measurements taken with a different detector which are claimed to show differences with respect to some of the results. That work has not been peer-reviewed. . . .
I am now hearing from you and a few other distinguished physicists arguing that I should now block publication of a paper that has met and passed all our tests. Because I believe that the right way to resolve serious scientific differences is through repetition, peer review, and publication I plan to proceed. I have told the ORNL management that we will be happy to consider a manuscript by those who have a different interpretation.
It was getting more complicated by the minute, but now that the Taleyarkhan paper was circulating around the physics community, I was freed from the high level of secrecy that had hampered my investigations. I made dozens of phone calls to scientists around the country, asking not only about bubble fusion but also about what had happened with the review process at Oak Ridge. I knew about Shapira and Saltmarsh, so I contacted them. I also spoke to one of Oak Ridge’s deputy directors, Lee Riedinger.
I was pretty sure Riedinger thought bubble fusion was garbage—but he never said so directly. “I’m confused,” he told me, when I asked him whether he believed the Taleyarkhan experiment or the Shapira-Saltmarsh one. “There’s an active dialogue back and forth about what could be wrong with either set of measurements.” Riedinger seemed to be walking a very fine line. He was trying to temper enthusiasm for Taleyarkhan’s results without publicly faulting his own employee’s research. (And he went out of his way to compliment Taleyarkhan’s abilities, adding that his work is “very novel and interesting.”)
I found a fusion expert at Livermore, Mike Moran, who had also done sonoluminescence—with deuterated water, no less—and I asked him what he thought of the paper. “The paper’s kind of a patchwork, technically, and each of the patches has a hole in it,” he told me, and pointed out a number of damning flaws that I hadn’t considered. Taleyarkhan’s experiment seemed to be producing some tritium, and the tritium production disappeared when the sound-wave generator wasn’t operating. Moran pointed out that this disappearance was a problem. A deuterated solution that had been irradiated by neutrons should show an increase in tritium levels whether or not the sound-wave generator—which collapsed the bubbles to ignite fusion—was working. Even without the fusion reactions, some of those neutrons would strike deuteriums and stick, creating tritium. In Taleyarkhan’s experiment, this was not the case; the control experiment with deuterated acetone and no sound-wave generator showed no increase in tritium. “If he’s really right, it should have shown up,” Moran said. “It’s an inconsistency in the data.”
I was convinced. Taleyarkhan was wrong: bubble fusion was a fiction. And because of the spurious result, a scientific drama was playing out before my eyes. The officials at Oak Ridge felt that the Shapira-Saltmarsh paper was damning, and they were hoping to avoid embarrassment. Garwin and Happer were trying to prevent another cold-fusion controversy, and Kennedy was trying to preserve the integrity of the peer-review process. Rumors were flying, and they were getting nastier and more paranoid by the minute. Everybody was getting increasingly annoyed with everyone else.
I got a note from Happer on Friday, March 1. He relayed part of a message from an unnamed colleague (not from Princeton or Oak Ridge) who was telling people of rumors that I had been “calling around asking about activities surrounding the publication of the article, not the ‘science’ in the article.” That message continued:
I don’t want to get anyone upset about this, but it does tend to verify the rumors we have heard about Don Kennedy, the current Science editor and former Stanford President, wanting to go after Princeton people for opposing the publication of the research paper in its original form.
The story had just gotten harder. The allegations were absurd—Kennedy had not influenced me at all, so I could hardly be his attack dog. However, it would be impossible to get honest opinions from physicists who believed that I was preparing a hatchet job at the behest of Don Kennedy. Later in the day, Happer sent a final note:
Be careful what you write and remember:
“The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.
Nor all thy piety, nor all thy wit,
Can call it back to cancel half a line
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”
I had been Omar Khayyamed.
Happer need not have reminded me. Of course I was acutely aware of the sensitivity of the situation. People were quite likely to get their first impression about bubble fusion from my article at the front of the magazine. I was skeptical, and I wanted that skepticism to come through, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that everybody’s view was represented fairly: the researchers, the editors, and the skeptics. In my mind, the whole bubble fusion controversy was fueled by these three parties’ tragic mutual incomprehension.
The bubble fusion story was about more than a scientific paper. It had become a story about the way science is done—and how the scientific peer-review process sometimes fails. The original ending to my piece grimly emphasized the point:
Taleyarkhan and his team, in good faith, submitted their paper to peer review and passed. Science magazine subjected the paper to scrutiny in accordance with their procedures, and once the paper was accepted, refused to allow outsiders to influence their publication process. And outside scientists, worried about the quality of the paper, tried to prevent the embarrassment of a second cold fusion fiasco. All three parties had the best of intentions—and now the road ahead is paved.
This ending was scrapped in favor of a less-editorializing one. Yet even as I penned those words, the misunderstanding built. Bob Park, the tireless critic of pseudoscience (particularly cold fusion and its proponents, such as Thomas Valone, the patent examiner), featured bubble fusion in his weekly What’s New newsletter, which is distributed on Friday afternoons:
BUBBLE FUSION: A COLLECTIVE GROAN CAN BE HEARD
A report out of Oak Ridge of d-d fusion events in collapsing bubbles formed by cavitation in deuterated acetone, is scheduled for publication in the March 8 issue of Science magazine. . . . Although distinguished physicists, fearing a repeat of the cold fusion fiasco 13 years ago, advised against publication, the editor has apparently chosen not only to publish the work, but to do so with unusual fanfare, involving even the cover of Science. Perhaps Science magazine covets the vast readership of Infinite Energy magazine.
Infinite Energy, of course, was the cold-fusion activist Eugene Mallove’s publication. Park was uncharacteristically wrong about the cover; bubble fusion was never going to be a cover story. However, his comment meant that the hitherto private controversy was about to become very public.
Over the weekend, the rumors flew, as did the press releases. Science distributed one as part of the weekly embargoed notification to journalists:
FUSION IN A FLASH? SCIENCE RESEARCHERS REPORT NUCLEAR EMISSIONS FROM TINY, SUPER-HOT COLLAPSING BUBBLES
The dramatic flashing implosion of tiny bubbles—in acetone containing deuterium atoms—produces tritium and nuclear emissions similar to emissions characteristic of nuclear fusion involving deuterium-deuterium reactions. This finding was reported in the 8 March issue of the peer-reviewed journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Shock wave simulations also indicate that temperatures inside the collapsing bubbles may reach up to 10 million degrees Kelvin, as hot as the center of the sun. Although the high temperatures and pressures within the bubbles would be sufficient to generate fusion, the overall results of the study only suggest, but do not confirm, nuclear fusion in the bubbles’ collapse. . . .
The experiment’s entire apparatus is well within the bounds of “table-top physics,” about “the size of three coffee cups stacked one on top of the other,” says Taleyarkhan. . . .
Currently, the level of neutron emissions with the characteristic fusion energy appears to be lower than would be expected from the tritium signals observed in the experiment. Further tests are needed to account for this discrepancy, and to verify the observed relations between the neutron emissions, tritium production, and bubble collapse.
If fusion is confirmed in further tests, these bubbles would still have a long way to go before they could be considered as a possible energy source with any commercial value, says Science co-author Richard T. Lahey Jr. of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. First of all, the bubble reaction would have to demonstrate net energy gain—that is, it should produce more energy than the energy needed to drive the reaction itself. Second, scientists would have to find a way to make the reaction perpetuate itself in a chain reaction, without constant input from a neutron source. . . .
It was optimistic, but not outrageous. The biggest problem, in my mind, is that it did not mention the Shapira and Saltmarsh manuscript. That was a major oversight, though I am not sure whether the press office was even aware of the paper at the time.
Reporters who received Science’s press package could get the Taleyarkhan paper, but the information was embargoed until 2 PM on Thursday, March 7. Only then would science reporters be allowed to print their stories.
There was also an Oak Ridge press release, but I didn’t see it until a few days later. Its tone was a little more pessimistic:
PRELIMINARY EVIDENCE SUGGESTS POSSIBLE NUCLEAR EMISSIONS DURING EXPERIMENTS
Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Russian Academy of Sciences have reported results that suggest the possibility of nuclear reactions during the explosive collapse of bubbles in liquid, a process known as cavitation. . . .
Experiments suggest the presence of small but statistically significant amounts of tritium above background resulting from cavitation experiments using chilled deuterated acetone. This tritium could result from the nuclear fusion of two deuterium nuclei. Tritium was not observed during cavitation of normal acetone, which does not contain deuterium.
Attempts to confirm these results by looking for the telltale neutron signature of the deuterium fusion reaction have yielded mixed results. While there are indications of neutron emission in the newly published results, subsequent experiments with a different detector system show no neutron production.
Theoretical estimates of the conditions in the collapsing bubbles are consistent with the possibility of nuclear fusion, under certain assumptions concerning the relevant hydrodynamics.
These results suggest the need for additional experiments, said ORNL’s Lee Riedinger, deputy director for Science and Technology. In particular, the difference in the two sets of neutron measurements must be clarified. Additional tritium experiments would also allow a better understanding of the tritium observations.
Until confirmatory experiments are completed, a cautionary view is appropriate, according to Riedinger, who said, “The manuscript has been through external peer review, but the scientific record shows that tritium and neutron measurements at these levels are difficult, and one must do further tests before firm conclusions can be drawn.”
Like Riedinger’s comments to me, the Oak Ridge press release was as negative and cautious as it could possibly be without directly undermining Taleyarkhan. Everybody at Oak Ridge was carefully watching their words.
I was, too. Over the weekend, after a few last-minute e-mails, I put the finishing touches on the first draft of the article. I had been asked to send a copy to Don Kennedy, so I did. It was an unusual request. Kennedy, as the editor in chief of Science, had the final say over everything that appeared in the pages. However, like his predecessors, he was pretty hands-off, at least when it came to the news section. We reporters were reasonably insulated from the politics of the magazine.
On Monday, I heard back from Don Kennedy. He seemed a little annoyed by the tone of my piece. The references to cold fusion and the use of the word tabletop bothered him. I stood my ground, arguing that everyone was, rightly or wrongly, comparing bubble fusion to cold fusion and so we had to use the term. As for tabletop, Taleyarkhan had used the word, as had Science’s own press release. Kennedy immediately relented:
I’m sorry if my cold-fusion allergy led to a slight grumble on my part. I don’t see how you could have avoided that term, and table-top is certainly okay. . . . I hope it was clear that although I might make a comment on a draft in such a situation, I am absolutely pledged to non-interference.
The term cold fusion was clearly driving the editors at Science to distraction. On the morning of Monday, March 4, Science’s press office admonished reporters who were even thinking of using the phrase:
[W]e ask all Science Press Package registrants to note that the peer-reviewed Science paper describes reactions inside bubbles that reach temperatures as hot as the center of the sun—up to 10 million degrees Kelvin. Thus, descriptions of this work as “cold fusion” are grossly inaccurate. We wish to thank all journalists who are taking the time to read and understand this research, to convey accurate information to the public.
In the same notice, the press office told of the Shapira-Saltmarsh paper and offered to provide it to reporters, as well as a response by Taleyarkhan’s team. (Oddly enough, Taleyarkhan’s team looked through the raw data provided by Shapira and Saltmarsh and claimed to see evidence of neutrons that the two were ignoring.)
The situation had already reached a boiling point. By 1:30 PM on Monday, the embargo was blown. The press office lifted all restrictions on using the articles and begged, once more, that journalists write a balanced story.
“Here we go. . . . Fasten your seatbelts,” one editor told me. It was all over the Internet in seconds. My article was being made available to reporters as well, and I started getting phone calls from television producers inviting me to talk on the air about bubble fusion.72
The press coverage ran the gamut from optimistic and credulous (“Fusion ‘Breakthrough’ Heralds Cleaner Energy,” trumpeted London’s Guardian) to pessimistic and weary (“Here we go again; Table-top fusion,” sighed the Economist). Most were in the middle. My impression was that television reporters (as usual) were more keen on bubble fusion than their print counterparts, but few went overboard. After an intense burst of interest for a week or so, the media frenzy began to calm down. But an undercurrent of bad feeling remained within the science community.
I knew that Science would be vulnerable to attack because of the bubble fusion paper, but I was surprised by the source of the most damning criticism. A week after the story broke, three of the reviewers of the paper—Putterman, Crum, and William Moss, a sonoluminescence theorist at Livermore—told the Washington Post that Science had published the Taleyarkhan paper over their objections:
“I reviewed the paper twice, I rejected it twice,” said William Moss, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
“I told Science you can’t publish it because it’s not right,” said Lawrence Crum, a physicist with the Applied Physics Lab of the University of Washington at Seattle.
“They say it was subject to stringent peer review, but does that mean it passed peer review?” asked Seth Putterman, a physicist with the University of California at Los Angeles, who also rejected the article.
Now this—this surprised me. I had been so busy looking for the neutrons that I didn’t spend a lot of time with sonoluminescence physicists. And what I heard from them had been complimentary, if cautious. (After all, Crum had even used the word “doggone” when describing the beauty of Taleyarkhan’s idea!) Shortly after the Washington Post story, Ken Suslick, too, chimed in. In the beginning of April, Putterman, Suslick, and Crum wrote a short criticism of the Taleyarkhan paper, arguing that it had been “unready for publication” and suffered from “substandard experimental techniques.”
The public criticism was not coming from fusion scientists, but sonoluminescence people,73 and from those I thought were reasonably supportive of Taleyarkhan’s technique. When I had interviewed Crum, and he admitted that he was a reviewer, he seemed positive enough that it didn’t occur to me to ask whether he suggested rejecting the paper. I had completely missed it. The three reviewers were also heaping criticism on Science’s review process. Later in the year, Putterman challengedScience to publish the positive reviews: “Somewhere out there is a positive report from someone,” he told Nature, Science magazine’s main rival. “Science should publish that report because then we’ll see what kind of information they went on to overrule four negative reviewers.” Of course, Don Kennedy refused. “We maintain our end of the confidentiality bargain about peer review, so I can’t discuss the process specifically, except to say that the positive reviews outweighed the negative ones. Why else should we publish the paper?”
Did Science overrule the virulent objections of its reviewers and deliberately publish a bad story? Were the sonoluminescence people jumping on the anti-bubble-fusion bandwagon after it got hammered by Shapira, Saltmarsh, and other fusion scientists? Unfortunately, I don’t know for sure.
Science is a peer-reviewed journal. But it is also a magazine. And magazines, especially those that run advertisements and classifieds, are always trying to boost their circulation. Peer-reviewed journals like to publish provocative and spectacular results in their pages to get extra attention. Sometimes this leads to bad science; even the best peer-reviewed journals occasionally publish substandard manuscripts in their pages. (Nature’s letters section, for example, is notorious for occasionally publishing attention-grabbing but dubious research.) The editor who received the bubble fusion manuscript might have been influenced by the spectacular nature of the claims, but at the same time, I don’t think that he (or other editors at Science) were consciously gaming the peer-review system to accept a manuscript that its reviewers had clearly rejected.
Though I have never gotten my hands on them, I believe that the reviews of Taleyarkhan’s paper were mixed—skeptical and admiring at the same time—and that there was enough innovation in the experiment’s technique that the editor in charge felt that the reviews were sufficiently positive to merit publication. However, even today, I have to shrug my shoulders when asked what happened behind the scenes during Taleyarkhan’s peer review. Frankly, when the bubble fusion frenzy diminished, I was relieved.
The story continued to simmer in the background. In July 2002, I covered an article by Suslick that appeared in Nature. Suslick and a colleague had used fluorescent dyes to measure the by-products of sonoluminescence in water and compared them to theorists’ expectations. “They’re saying, ‘We understand what’s going on inside the bubble,’ and if this is what you believe the science is, you should be suspicious of the Taleyarkhan paper,” Crum told me. (I wasn’t able to reach Taleyarkhan for comment by deadline, unfortunately.) After my article ran, Putterman dropped me a note saying that I was taking the theoretical work too seriously. I didn’t agree entirely, but the point was valid if a little odd. He seemed not to want to dilute the direct criticism of Taleyarkhan’s Science experiment with less-direct criticism from a theoretical perspective.
Taleyarkhan had also been busy. Oak Ridge had included him on a team of scientists assembled to attempt an experiment that would end the controversy once and for all, but the Department of Energy refused to pony up the necessary money. In 2003, Taleyarkhan quit his post at Oak Ridge in favor of a named chair in Purdue University’s School of Nuclear Engineering. In 2004, he published a paper in Physical Review E, a high-level peer-reviewed physics journal, that seemed to confirm his original findings. I didn’t think it added much to the debate, so I didn’t cover it, despite an overheated press release from Purdue:
EVIDENCE BUBBLES OVER TO SUPPORT TABLETOP NUCLEAR FUSION DEVICE
Researchers are reporting new evidence supporting their earlier discovery of an inexpensive “tabletop” device that uses sound waves to produce nuclear fusion reactions. . . .
... Whereas data from the previous experiment had roughly a one in 100 chance of being attributed to some phenomena other than nuclear fusion, the new, more precise results represent more like a one in a trillion chance of being wrong, Taleyarkhan said.
The New York Times covered the paper, as did a few other outlets, but it didn’t spark a huge amount of discussion, even though Crum told the Times that the new work was “much better” than what had appeared in Science. Nor did another confirming paper, written by Adam Butt and Yiban Xu, that appeared in a lesser journal, Nuclear Engineering and Design, raise any eyebrows. In this case, Purdue’s press release stressed the independence of the new work:
PURDUE FINDINGS SUPPORT EARLIER NUCLEAR FUSION EXPERIMENTS
Researchers at Purdue University have new evidence supporting earlier findings by other scientists who designed an inexpensive “tabletop” device that uses sound waves to produce nuclear fusion reactions.
The technology, in theory, could lead to a new source of clean energy and a host of portable detectors and other applications. . . .
Xu and Butt now work in Taleyarkhan’s lab, but all of the research on which the new paper is based was conducted before they joined the lab, and the research began at Purdue before Taleyarkhan had become a Purdue faculty member. The two researchers used an identical “carbon copy” of the original test chamber designed by Taleyarkhan, and they worked under the sponsorship and direction of Lefteri Tsoukalas, head of the School of Nuclear Engineering.
Taleyarkhan saw this as a great achievement, and in 2006 he wrote about how his results had been “independently confirmed.” This claim, too, was about to be challenged.
In 2005, I resigned from Science magazine to become a professor of journalism at New York University. So when the bubble fusion affair exploded again, I was watching from the sidelines. It was a much more comfortable position.
The bubble fusion affair began very differently from the cold-fusion fiasco. Unlike Pons and Fleischmann, Taleyarkhan and his team had not sought publicity until their research had been peer-reviewed by a major journal. Once Science stamped its imprimatur on the work, then the group could claim they were doing the right thing, at least according to the traditions of science—they were steering debate about the work into the scientific literature. Of course, there were questions about their competence as well as their conduct. For example, why hadn’t they withdrawn their paper after the devastating counterexperiment by Shapira and Saltmarsh?
I suspect they felt that Oak Ridge was trying to undermine their work and rob them of a publication in a prestigious journal. They were unconvinced (and perhaps uncomprehending) of the importance of the Shapira-Saltmarsh paper. The embattled bubble fusion scientists began to get paranoid, too. When the story first broke, Taleyarkhan’s coauthor (and PhD thesis adviser), Richard Lahey, told the Washington Postthat criticism of the paper was “political” and motivated by hot-fusion physicists who were trying to hold on to their big budgets. Throw on top of that their desire to patent the device and profit from it, and I doubt they ever seriously considered withdrawing the paper. In my opinion, not withdrawing, even despite the Shapira and Saltmarsh counterevidence, did not cross the line into scientific misconduct, though some anti-bubble-fusion scientists seemed to believe otherwise.
With bubble fusion, there were no moving peaks, no firm accusations of scientific fraud—at least at first. As time passed, though, the story of bubble fusion did begin to mirror the cold-fusion fiasco ever more closely. An embattled Taleyarkhan would soon find himself under investigation and accused of fraud.
The story began to stir again in 2005, in part because of a BBC science documentary. BBC’s science show, Horizon, interviewed Taleyarkhan and commissioned Seth Putterman to redo the Taleyarkhan experiment on TV. The results were completely negative. How many neutrons had Putterman seen coming from a bubble fusion cell? None at all. When the program, entitled “An Experiment to Save the World,” aired, Taleyarkhan looked foolish—even talking about his hopes for a Nobel. “Nuclear fusion is a major finding, some people think that it may be worthy of a Nobel Prize,” he said on the show. “It would be nice if it were. But I don’t, I don’t keep dreaming about it just now, if it happens so be it.” Apparently, as filming progressed, Taleyarkhan got increasingly suspicious, and he refused to help the Putterman team with the experiment.
DR RUSI TALEYARKHAN: I would help out anybody who I feel, who I felt comfortable with. I would, I would, but I have to be comfortable with that particular group.
INTERVIEWER: Why, why is that, because is it not just science?
DR RUSI TALEYARKHAN: I will not answer that question right now.
Despite Taleyarkhan’s reservation, within a month of the show’s air date he and Putterman (along with Suslick) yoked themselves together with a grant from the Pentagon. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave them more than $800,000 to try to replicate Taleyarkhan’s results. It was about that time that the murmurs about Taleyarkhan’s incompetence began turning to murmurs about scientific misconduct.
Lefteri Tsoukalas was one of the people at Purdue who helped recruit Taleyarkhan from Oak Ridge. He apparently began doubting Taleyarkhan’s integrity early in 2004, when the bubble fusion researcher first started working on campus full-time. Tsoukalas and five of his colleagues had been trying to replicate Taleyarkhan’s work without any success, and they hoped that Taleyarkhan could help them get the experiments running properly. But when Taleyarkhan arrived, Tsoukalas’s team was put off by his increasingly bizarre behavior. According to an exposé in Nature, Taleyarkhan allegedly started observing positive results that nobody else could detect: “He said: ‘Look, there’s a peak,’ but there was nothing to see,” one lab member told the magazine. “I started questioning it.” And then, in May 2004, apparently without warning, Taleyarkhan reportedly removed the bubble fusion equipment from the department’s lab. Though Tsoukalas and his colleagues were upset, they told Nature that they didn’t press the issue in the interest of faculty harmony. Then Taleyarkhan apparently argued against publication of the Tsoukalas group’s negative results. Yet, shortly after the Xu and Butt paper came out in 2005, Taleyarkhan is said to have pressed Purdue to issue the laudatory press release.
Soon, accusations started flying in the press that the Xu-Butt paper was not as independent as Taleyarkhan insisted, and Taleyarkhan soon found himself formally accused of scientific misconduct. In March 2006, Purdue University began an investigation into his actions, and the Xu-Butt research took center stage. Tsoukalas and a colleague, Martin Lopez de Bertodano, claimed that the Xu-Butt paper was “nothing but a contrived and hurried attempt to stage the appearance of ‘independent confirmation’ of sonofusion claims.”
Things got worse for Taleyarkhan by the day. More scientists joined the chorus crying fraud. Ken Suslick used the f-word in an interview with the Los Angeles Times when Nature first aired concerns about the Xu-Butt paper: “Presenting that as independent is fraud,” Suslick told them. And scientists had found other reasons to be concerned about Taleyarkhan’s conduct.
Earlier in 2006, a scientist in Putterman’s research group, Brian Naranjo, argued that Taleyarkhan’s data were consistent not with fusion reactions but with the radioactive decay of an element known as californium-252. (Taleyarkhan had been “negligent or jumped the gun or concocted data—one of those,” Putterman told the Los Angeles Times.) In May, Taleyarkhan’s group admitted that it had made an embarrassing error with a key piece of equipment; its detector was made of a material different from what had been reported. In December, Nature reported on allegations that “data from Xu’s paper are apparently identical to separate data reported by Taleyarkhan.” Taleyarkhan’s work was looking incompetent at best, and fraudulent at worst.74 Scientists were expressing their concerns to Purdue.
When Purdue wrapped up its investigation in December, after repeatedly being accused of foot-dragging, it initially kept the results secret. In February 2007 the university made them public.
Committee members had found a number of disturbing issues. They concluded that the Xu and Butt research was not independent after all. Taleyarkhan’s involvement in the work was consistent with that of a coauthor. In fact, his contribution was arguably greater than Adam Butt’s. Consequently, the committee deemed that when Taleyarkhan kept his name off the paper, he showed “a severe lack of judgment.” Despite this, the committee concluded in December 2006 that Taleyarkhan did not intend to mislead the scientific community and recommended against further pursuit of the matter.
Nevertheless, it would be further pursued. The committee had only looked into the allegations of fraud leveled by Tsoukalas and Lopez de Bertodano; it did not address many of the other complaints against Taleyarkhan that had been streaming in from outside researchers, and this raised questions about Purdue’s fraud-finding mechanisms. Congressman Brad Miller, the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee’s Investigations and Oversight panel, got Congress involved. Purdue University (and Taleyarkhan) received taxpayer dollars. If Purdue was not properly investigating fraud in its ranks of scientists, then Congress had reason for concern.
In March, Miller requested copies of the investigation reports. The request letter was ominous. “Despite the University’s statement that no misconduct had occurred, many disturbing questions remain about the scope and quality of the information,” Miller wrote. When Miller’s staff reviewed the documents, they concluded that the investigation had not been thorough, had failed to address the validity of Taleyarkhan’s research, and had not even followed Purdue’s internal guidelines for investigating allegations of scientific misconduct. Prodded by Miller, Purdue sheepishly began another inquiry.
When I spoke to Taleyarkhan in August 2007, he was downcast. “I am exhausted, Charles. I’m very happy to speak with a friend, or [someone] who used to be a friend,” he told me. “It is devastating. I’ve got two children who go to Purdue, who are students. One day in the press they see their father so honored and the next day they see him vilified. So, it’s tough.” It was heartbreaking to see this man—who had been so genuinely excited about his discovery—brought so low.
After nearly a year of deliberations, in July 2008, Purdue’s last inquiry panel finally released its findings. It concluded that, yes, Taleyarkhan had committed scientific misconduct. According to the panel’s report, Taleyarkhan had deceived the scientific community by falsely claiming the Xu and Butt paper was independent confirmation of Taleyarkhan’s original bubble fusion paper. Moreover, adding Adam Butt’s name as a coauthor—when Butt had contributed little to the work—was deemed a deliberate attempt to fool scientific reviewers into thinking that the research was more solid than it actually was. (Earlier, a reviewer had complained that a version of the manuscript, which had only Xu as an author, “was apparently done by one person so that needed cross-checks and witnessing of results seem lacking.” Adding Butt to the manuscript defused such objections.) In short, according to the Purdue findings, Taleyarkhan had deliberately misled the scientific community to cover up the shortcomings of his work. (Further, it didn’t find convincing evidence that Taleyarkhan had faked any experiments or fudged data.)75
Bubble fusion, like cold fusion, was steadily driven to the fringe of science. Though bubble fusion started out at the core of establishment science, it ended as sordidly as the cold-fusion fiasco had. The scientific community moved quickly from mere skepticism to accusations of fraud. Like Pons and Fleischmann before him, Taleyarkhan became increasingly bitter and isolated. As his experimental evidence came crashing down around him, according to the Purdue findings, he apparently turned to scientific misconduct to cover the shortcomings of his work.
Taleyarkhan’s reputation will likely never recover. In early 2002, Taleyarkhan was a distinguished engineer. Six years later, he was an outcast. He threw his career away chasing after the hope of unlimited fusion power—and after dreams of the Nobel Prize that would come from solving the world’s energy problems.