The experiments that have startled fusion researchers all over the world are in the grand tradition of old-fashioned science.
Two chemists modify a simple high school experiment and claim a major discovery. They believe they have sustained hydrogen fusion - the process that powers the sun - running at room temperature in a jar in their laboratory.Once again, ingenuity and imagination triumph where an army of researchers who spent some $20 billion on complex setups over the past 40 years have so far failed.
But the way this achievement was announced was hardly in the tradition of responsible scientific publication.
Beginning with the press conference the University of Utah called hastily March 23, it was needlessly flamboyant, fragmentary and confusing.
B. Stanley Pons, chairman of the university's chemistry department, and co-experimenter Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton (England) refused to give enough detail so that fusion experts could understand exactly what they had done.
They said to wait for their scientific paper, which they submitted to the journal Nature the next day. They had also sent a paper to the Journal of Electrolytical Chemistry on March 11.
University officials said they called the press conference because the news was beginning to leak. They withheld details to protect their patent position.
What they did, in fact, was stimulate widespread skepticism among experts and puzzlement among the general public.
After more than two weeks of press interviews, impromptu seminars, and photocopying of the March 11 paper, what the Utah scientists have done is becoming clearer.
In fusion, the nuclei of hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium, releasing energy in the process. The nuclei each have a positive charge.
Since like charges repel each other, it is difficult for two nuclei to get close enough for the strong nuclear force that promotes fusion to overcome the electrical repulsion. This can happen under the high temperatures prevailing in the core of our sun and in mainline fusion experiments.
Pons and Fleischmann use a form of electrolysis. In the usual school experiment, two electrodes are placed in a jar of water and connected to a small battery. The electric current splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.
The Utah scientists use electrodes of palladium and platinum immersed in heavy water - water composed of deuterium (doubly heavy hydrogen) and oxygen. When the heavy-water molecules split, deuterium is absorbed by the palladium.
Deuterium nuclei accumulate in the crystal structure of the palladium until they are packed closely enough for some of them to fuse.
Steven E. Jones and co-workers at Brigham Young University are doing comparable experiments. While Pons and Fleischmann claim their device produces four times as much energy as it consumes, Jones says his experiment yields very little energy.
Fusion experts still have a puzzle. It is not clear what happens in the palladium. It will take more study and attempts to duplicate the experiments to find out whether this is a practical approach to fusion power.
(Editor's note: Early efforts to duplicate the Utah work have had mixed results, but two laboratories at Texas A&M and Georgia Tech apparently have confirmed key elements of the fusion claim.)
Yet experts would be a lot further along - and the public less confused - if the university hadn't been so coy to begin with.
Its officials should have known that the details would come out once such a sensational claim was made. It would have been a much better public service to present them up front, patent considerations notwithstanding.