No one yet knows whether B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann actually discovered nuclear fusion in a test tube or something altogether different, but the energy released among scientists has powered a 24-hour discussion around the world.
A worldwide race to prove or disprove the claim has ensued, with researchers in Hungary, the Soviet Union and at Texas A&M University siding with the chemists and most physicists siding with MIT plasma fusion chief Ronald R. Parker, who questions the experiment's reported level of neutron release. MIT's researchers have been unable to duplicate the Utah results, but one of its physicists, Peter Hagelstein, has applied for a patent on a theory that could explain how the experiment works, just for the record.A Georgia Tech team announced unexplained high neutron levels from the Utah experiment, duplicated from televised reports and information from a computer bulletin board before Pons and Fleischmann published a paper describing it. That group later backed off, after finding its neutron measuring gear temperature-sensitive. Still others at the University of Washington said they saw no neutrons or heat, but fusion byproducts. Then Texas A&M backed off, too.
That furious background noise heard by many watching this debate comes from a worldwide, computer- , telephone- and facsimile-driven symposium on fusion, not a bad thing even if the Utah results are finally debunked. Chemists note with pride that two of their colleagues, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, were first to demonstrate nuclear fission in experiments by physicist Enrico Fermi, who was at a loss to explain the strange results he was getting. And physicists seem convinced that one of their fellows, Steven Jones of Brigham Young University, successfully found cold fusion.
Even if the Utah results ultimately turn out to be a new form of chemistry, that will be useful, too. Some scientists think the experiment will eventually help unravel the mysteries of catalysis, which itself could spark a whole new round of discoveries in chemistry.