Not since the introduction of the superconductor have so many chemists left their labs to attend an annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.
The big draw, the man who brought more than 8,000 chemists from around the world to the Dallas Convention Center on Wednesday, was an unpretentious Utahn by the name of B. Stanley Pons.Pons, a University of Utah chemistry professor, arrived in Dallas - under an assumed name and tight security - to tell colleagues how in a tabletop test tube he had attained fusion - the energy source of the stars and hydrogen bomb.
Three weeks ago, the 46-year-old and his Czech-born colleague Martin Fleischmann, 62, announced that through a simple experiment in a college chemistry lab they had produced a cold nuclear reaction in a flask of heavy water, water in which hydrogen is in a heavy form called deuterium.
Their experiment has been confirmed by three laboratories, including one in Texas. It has also generated excitement and skepticism among fellow scientists.
Meanwhile, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, said he spoke with Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. Tuesday. Lujan told him that scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico had successfully repeated the Pons/Fleischmann experiment. But spokesmen for the laboratory, home of the nuclear bomb, have so far refused to say if the experiment has been successfully repeated.
Many gathered Wednesday for answers to the phenomenon that defies scientific theory: How can a fusion reaction produce more energy than it consumed from the battery that was used to start it? Producing more energy than needed to start the reaction has long been a goal of conventional nuclear fusion researchers.
"Technically speaking, it's possible, but all of the chemical community has been waiting to hear about how the experiment works and to ask questions before making conclusions as to the validity of the work," said Sam P. Perone, an analytical chemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where two groups are trying to replicate the Utah experiment. "I think there are alternative explanations to the process that need to be determined."
Perone, chairman of the division of analytical chemistry of the American Chemical Society, said one possibility - "yet to be determined" - involves the storage of chemical energy that is released by an electro-chemical process.
He wouldn't speculate on other explanations for what Pons calls a nuclear reaction. Pons has said: "It can't be explained any other way, but the scientific community will now have to try to understand the process involved."
Late Wednesday, K. Brigitta Wahley, University of California at Berkeley, was expected to offer "theoretical explanations" for the historic breakthrough that Pons and Fleischmann announced March 23.
Fusion confusion erupted following their news conference at the U., and the American Chemical Society clamored to arrange a "special presidential event" featuring Pons at the society's 197th national meeting.
According to one society official, the reaction to Pons' appearance Wednesday was overwhelming.
"There has been a tremendous amount of interest. A lot of scientists reportedly came just for this event, as did a lot of press people," said Nancy Enright, manager of the chemical society's news service.
"The only event that attracted this much attention was superconductors. But this surpasses even that."
Pons has already delivered lectures on his discovery at three universities. But Wednesday's audience was much bigger - eight to 10 times bigger. So big, in fact, that the 13 Dallas hotels booked to accommodate the meeting were full.
The lecture itself has moved from the convention center theater to the 10,000-seat convention arena to handle those seeking copies of the chemist's scientific papers and a verbal description of his discovery.
Security was tight. Reporters, while allowed to attend the scientific session, were barred from taking photographs or filming the proceedings. Only about 100 reporters with proper credentials were to be admitted to a news conference following the speeches by Pons, Wahley and three colleagues, including Harold P. Furth, a Princeton University physicist who was to discuss how and when fusion power will be practical.
Some concurred that the Utah experiment could be the breakthrough of the 20th century - a new energy source that could herald a new field of scientific research.
"Obviously if one produces nuclear fusion without tremendous amounts of energy (input) and without expensive apparatus, it could have vast application for future generations," Perone said. "We all hope it turns out to be valid and opens up a whole new area of investigation. We all hope it's a real phenomenon and all implications are real. That's our hope."
Until the Pons-Fleischmann work, fusion had been thought to require temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees.
Fleischmann of the University of South Hampton in England was also invited to speak. Instead, he and Brigham Young University physicist Steven E. Jones were keynote speakers at a special one-day seminar in Italy Wednesday.
Called by the Ettore Majorana Center for Scientific Culture, the conference focused on the cold nuclear fusion experiments being conducted at both Utah universities.
Jones, who also claims to have produced fusion in an apparatus similar to Pons', has said the amount of energy produced in the BYU experiments is far less than the amount needed for electricity required to start the reaction.