A Gary Larson cartoon on the door of B. Stanley Pons' office shows a small boy writing the same line over and over on a blackboard: "I will not play in God's domain."
The caption has been altered to read: "Young Stan Pons stays after school."The University of Utah chemistry professor didn't put up the cartoon, but he hasn't taken it down, either. Nor has he strictly adhered to it.
He fudged just a little - a tiny, little bit - when he co-discovered a process that might have fused the power of the suns and hydrogen bomb into a test tube.
In discovering cold nuclear fusion in a flask, Pons thrust the scientific community into a spin, caused palladium prices to soar and sent distinguished white-haired chemistry professors hustling out of lecture halls back into the labs, where they're acting like graduate students again.
What has it done to the private life of the bookish, soft-spoken man?
For starters, it no longer is private.
"It's a fishbowl life now, but the whole family is still down to earth, going about their normal routine the best they can," said U. spokeswoman Barbara Shelly, who's helped screen Pons' hundreds of calls to the professor since the historic March 23 announcement.
But no public relations staff - even one much larger than the U.'s - could have shielded Pons from the journalists, who have camped outside his office and his home. Media and other inquiries are coming to the U. from all over the world, including the Soviet Union, Australia and many European countries.
In the last week, scientists hoping to duplicate his research, employers eager to hire him away from Utah and companies wanting to cash in on cold fusion during the last week have clamored for "just a few minutes" of his time. Unanswered messages clutter his desk. Home phones ache for peace and quiet.
For the past three weeks, the discovery of Pons and his British colleague Martin Fleischmann has been extensively reported, analyzed and criticized in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Their scientific paper, published in the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry, has become a collector's item. So have university press photographs, snatched up by history buffs and groupies at the press conference where the breakthrough was first announced.
For the coverage of the Pons' story, the U. public relations workers have used 10,000 sheets of "press release" paper - as much as they usually use in six months.
The scientists' faces - not to mention their infamous test tube - have been prominently displayed on television screens night after night as general assignment reporters turned fusion experts have tried to explain the ruckus to the average reader. Students still seek Pons' autograph.
Not unlike rock stars, Pons has attracted large audiences wherever he's given a seminar. In Dallas, at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, officials had to move his speech from a 1,700-seat auditorium to an arena that would accommodate 10,000.
He's been grilled by Doubting Thomases - mostly physicists - for hours on end, and like a governor or president, has at times been forced to travel with a bodyguard. In at least one hotel, he was registered under an assumed name.
Like other celebrities, he's also been the butt of jokes by television talk show hosts.
"Did you hear about the Utah chemist who made fusion in a jar? Last week he made janitor in a drum," David Letterman quipped.
Johnny Carson's semi-permanent guest host, Jay Leno, asked his audience if they had heard about the Utah scientist who had achieved cold fusion. "I thought Exxon already did that at Valdez."
Carson, following suit, said this week that the Utah scientist wasn't the only one making important discoveries in a kitchen. (Pons and his colleague Martin Fleischmann concocted their research strategy in the Pons' family kitchen).
Carson joked that sidekick Ed McMahon has conducted experiments there, too, and has come up with an equally important discovery: a plutonium cocktail. But, through it all, Pons, an intense scientist (who goes to the lab at all hours of the night), has remained a laid-back guy - just one of the chemistry department team who drives a four-wheel-drive vehicle to work and wears rugby shirts and cords to the classroom.
Colleagues say that despite the enormous pressure he faces, Pons' spirits are high. "He's tough," one colleague said. For the most part, he's also kept cool. Sure, there've been times when he's tired and grouchy. Who wouldn't be?
Once he even slammed his door on a reporter for a national science magazine who showed up without an appointment. Minutes later, however, he emerged, apologized and granted the interview in an office where scientific equations are encircled with the word "love," written around the outside of the blackboard. (Pon's 36-year-old wife Sheila is taking classes at the U.)
Scientists, whether they agree or disagree with his research, call him brilliant. Reporters say he's unpretentious, and friends call him humble.
Most everyone is charmed by his dry humor.
"It's amazing what an electrochemist has to do to get invited (to speak) at the American Chemical Society," the Utahn, whose slight drawl speaks of his North Carolina roots, told 7,000 chemists at the Dallas meeting. Not since the introduction of the superconductor have so many chemists attend the society's annual meeting.
Despite international acclaim, Pons remains unspoiled, seemingly oblivious to the fact that one day he could either be a very wealthy, Nobel prize-winning chemist or summed up in a minor footnote to scientific history.
For the time being, Pons is content to be just "Stan," the serious scientist who wants to be out of the limelight and back in the solitude of his lab, where perhaps the greatest discovery since electricity or the atom bomb is alive.