The dramatic finding that could thrust two scientists into scientific history had its humble beginning five years ago on a hike up Millcreek Canyon on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. And it culminated in a fateful decision in a family kitchen.
B. Stanley Pons, of the University of Utah, and Martin Fleischmann, of the University of Southampton in England, describe their discovery as "accident built on foreknowledge.""Stan and I talk often of doing impossible experiments. We each have a good track record of getting them to work," said Fleischmann. "The stakes were so high with this one, we decided we had to try it."
The scientists, who combine American wit and English charm, pondered their data and later discussed the findings one two memorable occasions - once when they drove together through Texas and later when they took a hike up Millcreek Canyon. They concocted their research strategy in the Pons' family kitchen "during one of our Jack Daniels phases."
The nature of the experiment was so simple, said Pons, that at first it was done for the fun of it and to satisfy scientific curiosity.
"When we started this experiment," Fleischmann said, "we said it had a billion to one chance. Stan and I thought this experiment was so stupid that we financed it ourselves" with about $100,000.
Even though the two had immediate indication that their experiment worked, "we thought we wouldn't be able to raise any money since the experiment was so farfetched."
Working late into the night and on weekends at Pons' U. laboratory, the two improved and tested the procedure throughout a 51/2-year period.
Fleischmann, a native of Czechoslovakia and naturalized British subject, will celebrate his 62nd birthday March 29. He has written more than 240 articles in the electrochemical, physics, chemistry and electrochemical engineering fields during his 40-year career, and is regarded as one of the world's leading electro-chemists.
A fellow of the Royal Society of England, he was awarded a medal for electrochemistry and thermodynamics by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1979; the Olin-Palladium Medal of the Electrochemical Society in 1985; and the Bruno Breyer award by the Royal Australian Chemical Society in 1988. He earned a doctorate in chemistry at London University in 1951.
"We are absolutely delighted about the accomplishment of our colleague," said Robert Nesbitt, an official of the University of Southampton. "In terms of the environment, this is great news. It means we can stop thinking about radioactive waste.
"This is also extremely good news for Mrs. Thatcher, and it may well get her re-elected because a British scientist, spending his own money, demonstrated her fundamental precept that we should all look after ourselves."
Fleischmann and Pons have collaborated on 32 articles.
Pons, who in 1975 studied under Fleischmann as a graduate student in England, has written more than 140 articles and lectured throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. He earned a bachelor of science degree at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1965 and a doctorate at the University of Southampton in 1979. He is originally from Valdese, N.C., and is a professor of chemistry and chairman of the U.'s department of chemistry.
U. President Chase Peterson jokingly said Thursday that Pons may be relieved of his chairmanship if "he does something really big."