Science is usually viewed as the scholarly pursuit of truth, but sometimes personalities get involved, things turn nasty and controversy overshadows achievement.
The controversy between the University of Utah and Brigham Young University over cold nuclear fusion experiments may work itself out and a true team effort may ensue, but for the time being, scientists everywhere are taking sides and making stands.With millions of dollars at stake, personal scientific reputations on the line and perhaps a Nobel Prize, it's just as likely that conflict will continue.
Rumors were flying this past week in scientific and teaching circles, and, depending on who was talking, the topic was: What did the U. steal from BYU? or What did BYU steal from the U.?
According to Steven E. Jones, the BYU physicist who has been working on cold nuclear fusion for at least 10 years, the U.'s announcement that chemistry professor B. Stanley Pons has discovered a breakthrough in cold nuclear fusion is misleading.
"I just want people to know what we've been doing down here, our history," Jones says.
Pons, meanwhile, says he had never heard of Jones or his work until late last year when Jones called him and asked if they should work together on fusion. Jones - the principal investigator for the Department of Energy for cold fusion work - had reviewed Pons' application for a DOE grant and discovered that Pons was working on cold fusion.
It's not just a question of stealing the limelight, however.
As U. President Chase N. Peterson says, "We want the state (i.e., the U. of U.) to be at the forefront of fusion technology." That means patenting any and all devices that transfer Pons' experiment into working reactors capable of producing cheap electrical power.
Assuming the breakthrough is valid, the state-held licenses on such devices could mean millions, maybe even hundreds of millions, of dollars down the road.
If a legal challenge arises, the outcome could depend on who documented his work better.
Jones has notarized his research notes to prove he experimented and theorized about the process on particular dates.
Peterson has had Pons' laboratory photographed from top to bottom to provide visual evidence of the scientist's work. Pons says he also has notebooks detailing his and colleague Martin Fleischmann's 51/2-year experiment.
"In order to straighten this out what one needs is an accurate chronology of who did what when," said Robert W. Perry, distinguished professor of chemistry at the U.
There are hard feelings at the two schools, although Pons and Jones themselves are trying to focus on their work, not disagreements.
The hard feelings started when U. officials announced their "breakthrough" experiment at a March 23 press conference. The hard feelings continue through rumors about who may have "stolen" which ideas from whom.
Last fall, Jones, the DOE's chief investigator on cold nuclear fusion, was sent a grant proposal written by Pons and asked to review it and comment on it. Some say he should have sent it back to the DOE unread since he was working on a similar project.
"To review a paper when you haven't done as much work in the field (as the author) is presumptuous," said Cheves Walling, a distinguished professor of chemistry at the U. and former editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. "I think Jones comes under my presumptuous heading. He had thought a lot about it but hadn't done much and wanted to get on the bandwagon."
"The real sensitive problem is the concept of peer review," he said. "This is one of the kinds of things people are concerned about - that ideas can be borrowed in an unauthorized form and used. This raises an ethical question in the whole issue of peer review. The controversy centers right here."
Jones says that's ridiculous, that he's supposed to review others' cold fusion work for DOE.
Usually, the identity of the reviewer is supposed to be kept secret. But Jones decided to talk about it because "it has become general public knowledge that I reviewed his work," and some people are hinting that Jones stole from it. He says he didn't and has the notes to prove he was working on similar experiments years before. Jones says he recommended Pons for the $332,000 grant - which has since been awarded.
Jones, who learned of Pons' work through the DOE application, sent word to Pons that they should meet and work together on cold nuclear fusion. Pons met with Jones. It was clear that both were nearing points in their experiments where publication was possible. They decided to publish their work at the same time. Jones and his BYU colleague Bart Czirr had developed a neutron detector - a complicated device that reads low emissions of neutron activity. Such neutron activity is necessary - traditional physicists believe - for fusion to take place. Earlier this year, Jones offered Pons use of the device to help confirm Pons' experiment.
Pons declined the offer. He is a chemist, not a physicist, and was measuring his experiment through heat with a calorimeter - the traditional chemist's method. Pons wasn't interested in a neutron counter.
A meeting was held with Peterson, BYU President Jeffery Holland, Pons, Jones and others. According to Jones and Pons, it was agreed each would write up his experiments and submit them at the same time to one journal - Nature.
Peterson then decided, for a variety of reasons, to call a press conference before the papers were submitted. "Word was leaking out. We even had a code name for our experiment - the `F Experiment' (F for fusion) - so that we wouldn't speak of nuclear fusion openly. I have a stewardship. I have to protect the university's and state's interest. I would be negligent, maybe even criminally negligent, if I hadn't acted to protect that interest," Peterson says. Going public was one way of protecting that interest, he adds.
Pons believes a press conference had nothing to do with the joint papers, nothing to do with that agreement. Jones and BYU officials see it differently.
Whatever the case, relations between the two institutions remain strained.