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Science Magazine Publishes Fusion Paper, Igniting Academic Controversy

By Shankar Vedantam
THE WASHINGTON POST -- A small glass cylinder sits at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Partly filled with a form of acetone, the cylinder is closed at the bottom and at the top, with openings for a vacuum pump. A device that converts electricity into mechanical energy is stuck to the glass and sends sound waves into the acetone.

A neutron generator sits nearby, to fire tiny particles into the liquid in time with the sound waves.

The setup is smaller than most coffee makers, but the experiment being conducted with it rocked the world of physics last week and set off a quarrel among scientists that was the academic equivalent of a barroom brawl.

Rusi Pesi Taleyarkhan at Oak Ridge said that the small glass structure replicated the nuclear fusion reactions that occur inside the sun and the stars, and that those reactions had previously been simulated on Earth only with gigantic particle accelerators, highly radioactive substances and the hydrogen bomb.

While those systems have relied on powerful energy sources to slam atoms of hydrogen together, Taleyarkhan said he achieved the same effect by using a small force that was intensely concentrated.

“It’s the old karate chop effect,” Taleyarkhan said. “If you increase the rate of change, it results in a more intense shock. You can use the same energy over a short time and crack a brick, when otherwise you would just be pushing it.”

A report on the experiment conducted by scientists at Oak Ridge, Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York and the Russian Academy of Sciences was published in the respected journal Science -- against the advice of at least three scientists who reviewed the paper for the journal:

“I reviewed the paper twice, I rejected it twice,” said William Moss, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“I told Science you can’t publish it because it’s not right,” said Lawrence Crum, a physicist with the Applied Physics Lab of the University of Washington at Seattle.

“They say it was subject to stringent peer review, but does that mean it passed peer review?” asked Seth Putterman, a physicist with the University of California at Los Angeles, who also rejected the article.

As the accusations and allegations increased, Taleyarkhan’s supporters fought back. Russ George, a California scientist who has worked for many years on alternative energies, said the three critics were Taleyarkhan’s competitors.

“They are not happy that they are beaten to the prize,” said George, formerly a visiting scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and at the Stanford Research Institute. “They have so much to gain by having Taleyarkhan fail.”