Media accounts of the University of Utah nuclear fusion experiment have invariably pointed out that the announcement aroused both enthusiasm and doubt worldwide. The skepticism in the press has been proportional to the distance from Utah. Much of the Eastern elite press has remained cool. The major news magazines haven't used a line on fusion in three issues since the story broke.
A friend in New York City says the Eastern press gave him the impression we Utahns are selling snake oil.Otis Pike, the ex-congressman-turned-columnist, said the national press, meaning primarily the New York Times, blew "a whale of a story" by virtually ignoring it. He particularly wondered about the absence of any mention in the Times' Sunday "News of the Week in Review" section.
So did U. President Chase Peterson, when interviewed on a KUER news show. He said it might be that Utah had an image problem - too many stories about aberrations, too many Hofmann, Schreuder, Bundy, Singer-Swapp episodes, perhaps?
The Peterson comment came in a local drop-in news segment on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." The NPR report also was the typical highly qualified national story: "If it is verified some people believe it could lead to cheaper nuclear power."
- ACTUALLY THE TIMES hasn't been quite as imperious as Pike indicated, and its detachment is understandable. In the first two weeks it used four stories, including one in the Tuesday Science Times section last week.
I called Phil Boffey, the Times science editor, to ask why all these stories have had subdued play. I had a good idea of how he would respond. He said, "There is always a heavy burden on any dramatic claim to be duplicated and shown to be correct. The Utah scientists have made a startling claim; we'll see."
- THE MOST COMMON COMPLAINT scientists make against the press is that it is too willing to jump on a scientific claim or experiment before it has been validated or even gone through a review by those best qualified to judge it. The press is often accused justifiably of sensationalizing scientific developments and giving false hope of great "breakthroughs," a word we have heard often in the fusion story.
Scientists also often complain that the press distorts and lacks perspective if only because few reporters also are trained scientists.
Furthermore, scientific developments have a habit of proceeding nicely without benefit of publicity. Consider the legendary press indifference to the Wright Brothers' flight in 1903. Only three or four papers noticed it immediately, their hometown paper did not mention it, and the first scientific account appeared three months later in a magazine called Gleanings in Bee Culture. Similarly, no media manias accompanied the early developments in nuclear fission.
- THE REASON for the skepticism over fusion was well expressed in the Wall Street Journal's first story, still the most comprehensive piece that I have seen, 44 inches long, plus a graphic that explained what fusion is. It was written by Ken Wells and Jerry E. Bishop. They wrote that "in late 1950 a British experiment appeared to have reached the break-even point as measured by the number of neutrons that came flying out of the experiment. After several weeks of excitement it was discovered the neutrons were spurious. Since then, physicists have been extremely skeptical of any claims of sustained fusion reactions."
Yet an oddity of the fusion story is that it has been contagious worldwide without benefit of the Times front page. The Times page one ordinarily is an important vehicle for "setting the agenda." Other media, especially the networks, take cues from it. The story broke first in the Financial Times of London, possibly through sources in Fleischmann's hometown of Southhampton, and spread quickly after the U. press conference.
- THE LOCAL REPORTING has been uneven. A few erroneous reports have been mixed in with some first-rate explanatory pieces. Some stories both in print and on the air have been far too effusive. The Salt Lake media already have not only conferred the Nobel Prize on Drs. Pons and Fleischmann but also have put them in league with Einstein and Newton. All that is rather much considering these stories also have warned that only time will tell.
Some reports were at best premature that James C. Fletcher would be taking charge of the fusion project, that the article the chemists have submitted to the prestigious British scientific journal Nature had been accepted, then that the Nature editors were hesitant about the paper.
Some of the media, particularly the Deseret News, have regrettably been inclined to treat the parallel fusion research at the U. and Brigham Young University in the same terms as a football match.
- THE COOPERATION of the University and the scientists with the press has been excellent. B. Stanley Pons has taken all calls graciously, and the U. vice president for research, James Brophy, a physicist, also has jumped in to explain. Much of the U. publicity has been coordinated by Pam Fogle, who heads its news bureau and is herself a science writer.
Fogle says that overall there's as much interest in the fusion story as there was in the Barney Clark artificial heart implant. She and science writer Barbara Shelley have fielded between 500 and 600 phone calls (one report said erroneously 400 a day!), from not only the press but from accountants, lawyers, high-tech companies, even literary agents.
Fogle is sympathetic to the Times' cautious approach, saying the U. put the media in a delicate position by circumventing the usual process of scientific publication and verification, however necessary or well-meaning the early revelation might have been.