PBS's "Nova" devotes an hour tonight to making Stanley Pons, Martin Fleischmann, the University of Utah and Utah in general look foolish.
Well, that's a bit of an overstatement. But an installment titled "ConFusion In a Jar" (7 p.m., Ch. 7) does its best to shoot cold fusion down.The show's conclusion is simple: "Whatever it (Pons and Fleischmann's experiment) turns out to be it has by now lost almost all serious claims to being a major source of energy."
"ConFusion In a Jar" tells "one of the strangest stories in modern science." The hour begins with the great excitement stirred up in the scientific community and the general public by Pons and Fleischmann's March 23, 1989, press conference announcing they had achieved fusion in their laboratory.
"Nova" relates the woes of laboratories attempting to re-create the Utah experiment - attempts made all the more difficult because the results had not been published.
Particularly damning are revelations that Georgia Tech, which originally confirmed the results, later had to admit it had made errors in the process. And the possibility of intentional fraud at Texas A&M further hurt cold fusion's reputation.
Meanwhile, "Back in Utah, fusion fever took on a sort of party aspect," the narrator intones as viewers are shown a series of fusion T-shirts.
Pons and Fleischmann come off defensive and petulant as the criticism mounted. The U. comes off defensive and parochial.
U. President Chase Peterson comes off as dishonest. The "anonymous" $500,000 donation to the the university's National Cold Fusion Institute - which later turned out to be simply a transfer of funds with the university - is cited as the direct cause of Peterson's announced retirement.
Pons' disappearance last November doesn't play particularly well, either.
The program also gives a sound, reasonable explanation for the established scientific process of submitting papers for publication and awaiting their verification - a process Pons and Fleischmann bypassed with their infamous press conference. Quite simply, it allows time for the scientific community to verify results before setting off a furor that can (and did) prove embarrassing.
Utah also appears a bit foolish for jumping in with $5 million to fund the project after the federal government had turned down a request from the U.
"Nova" also gives a great deal of credence to the Steven Jones factor. The BYU physics professor relates his experience with Pons and Fleischmann, beginning in 1985. And the fact that he and the pair from the U. were scheduled to submit papers on March 24, 1989 - the day after the press conference - is seen as particularly important.
"We're really glad we didn't end up working too closely with them," Jones says. "Their nuclear physics obviously wasn't too solid at this stage.
"We hadn't realized that they were thinking along those grandiose lines."
"Nova" draws a direct conclusion from Jones' input: "It seems clear that, having learned about Jones, they were anxious to beat him to a patent application."
Even Fleischmann himself lends credence to this interpretation of events. He says on air, "It was really the patents which were driving this thing."
Not only is "science by press conference" called into question, but the media also takes its lumps for jumping on the bandwagon and reporting on something it didn't really understand. (Local print and electronic media can both share the blame here.)
"Nova" sums up "ConFusion In a Jar" with a statement from Yale physicist Moshe Gai:
"Cold fusion represents, more than anything else, the American dream," he says. "Thomas Alva Edison would have been proud to invent a gadget that is supposed to make this fantastic source of energy.
"My own feeling is that the American dream turned into the American nightmare."
Not to mention the Utah nightmare.
- TONIGHT ON THE TUBE: Kevin makes an unsettling realization on The Wonder Years (7 p.m., Ch. 4) - he and Winnie are growing apart; Dr. J (Julius Erving) joins Dr. Doogie on Doogie Howser, M.D. (8 p.m., Ch. 4); All Our Children with Bill Moyers (8 p.m., Ch. 5) spends 21/2 hours on the problem of education in America - the first 90 minutes is a documentary on programs that have worked to combat children dropping out or failing school, and the last hour is a public forum from Columbia, S.C.; The Civil War (8 p.m., Ch. 7) continues with Parts 4 and 5; Sinead O'Connor (8 p.m., Lifetime) performs in a concert recorded in London; Night Court (8 p.m., Ch. 2) returns to Wednesdays; Seinfeld (8:30 p.m., Ch. 2) returns to the NBC schedule; Equal Justice (9 p.m., Ch. 4) includes the question of whether a juvenile murderer should be put to death; and a cast member is killed on WIOU (9 p.m., Ch. 5).
- LOOKING TOWARD THURSDAY: There's a local college basketball game, BYU at Colorado State (7:30 p.m., Ch. 5), which shifts the time of other programming on Ch. 5. Good Sports slides back to 9:30 p.m. and Knots Landing will be on after the news at 10:35 p.m.; elsewhere, Robin proposes to Rebecca on Cheers (8 p.m., Ch. 2); and Brian and Joe see a UFO on Wings (8:30 p.m., Ch. 2).