My father was a nuclear scientist. He worked his whole life in science, in a lab inventing. He was even part of the famous Manhatten Project during WWII. As it happened I was the youngest of three children and my older brother, five years ahead of me, was keen to follow in fathers footsteps. He occupied all of the hard science territory in the family ecosystem and I was no match for him. I took a different road and became a natural history guy and ecologist, mostly plant ecology but a bit of everything. Then one day…
One of the many unexpected things that has happened to me in my life is the sudden expression of my father’s genes when I was about 40. I was happily working as producer, director, and writer on what was to become a pilot for a television series called “The New Environmentalists.” I had pitched the program idea as it was essentially my life. It was all about the many people no one ever hears about who are well educated and experienced environmental scientists and managers who work in the trenches for industry. They don’t go out to sea on the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior to create headline grabbing stories they just go to work everyday on behalf of the environment, doing the right thing very often where it counts most before and as harm is done to the environment. The show was being funded by the Electric Utility Industry through the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Ca.
In 1989 at the very end of March, the 30th, I walked over one morning to the coffee room at EPRI where I was working. I liked to take breaks, not in the break room for the environmental group I was working with, rather in the room for the nuclear physics people. I can see now that room full of nuclear science geeks was programmed into my genes, I could not have possibly walked by that particular berry patch without partaking. So as I walked in I could see the room had been commandeered and people were huddled around a big TV with rulers and dividers. They were playing news footage of the day before and making measurements and taking notes from what was on screen and what they were talking about. It was nuclear Geek heaven. The were in fact working to reverse engineer what was on the news. That was a pair of chemists from Utah by the names of Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. The TV chemists were holding up for the cameras at a new conference a test tube like apparatus and this was the announcement of Cold Fusion.
Over the course of a few weeks while I was in and out of the EPRI building working on our TV show I was privy to the coffee room chit chat about the success of the reverse engineering effort, it was indeed very promising. It was also so apparently easy that all one needed was some exotic precious metal, palladium, and some exotic but not so precious heavy water. Before long I managed to come by the right bit and pieces and I had my own experiments running in my Palo Alto garage. It was critical that one was incredibly careful and patient, but if so the experiment was quite reproducible. I thought wow what an incredible and wonderful discovery for the world, a source of radiation and waste free nuclear energy that one could build and run in a kitchen sink. The story turned into a saga and Pons & Fleischmann were trumpeted as both heros by those who looked carefully at their work and as villians by skeptical fearful people who saw nothing in their discovery but the upsetting of the dogma of physics of which many of the growing ranks of critics saw themselves as high priests.
Being what I cold see far behind my colleagues at EPRI who had managed to reproduce the experiment in a very short time I didn’t think for a moment I could keep up in my garage, even if it was a Palo Alto garage, all garages of geeks in Palo Alto are known to be just this side of magical of course. I had a friend who had taken on the task of making something of high temperature superconducting when it had burst onto the world. He had taught himself how to cook up the magnet material in his garage and then instead of competing with the top scientists in the field he started making science classroom kits for teachers so that they could have everything they needed to teach all about superconducting magnets. You know those neat little magnets where one floats in the air above another one that is sitting in a puddle of liquid nitrogen. My friend gave me pointers on how to put together a classroom cold fusion kit with all the bit and pieces and a teacher guide on how to teach about this wonderful discovery that was going to promptly change the world. It would be my niche in the world of nuclear physics. If my father had been alive he’d have loved it, he was one of those science dads who brought an endless stream of cool science stuff home to show to us kids.
Over the course of some months in my spare time when I wasn’t filming the TV pilot I ran my own experiments and designed the classroom materials. I was hooked up by my friend with the leading sellers of classroom science stuff and we came very very near to a business agreement to start distribution of this breakthrough gee whiz science. Then as history has shown the physics theorists attacked with mighty vengeance. It was led by particularly nasty jerks including one who made the audacious statement that a discovery of such a nature would never come from an unknown school in Utah, a real discovery of such merit could only arise from a school like his or MIT or Stanford. Ah a fight the media saw blood in the water and they swarmed the topic in a feeding frenzy, if it bleeds it leads of course. To this day the wholesale media onslaught continues to bring out the media hound bullies of theoretical physics.
One thing led to another and before anyone could do anything the topic of cold fusion was mired in a controversy that continues to this day more than twenty years hence. But I was thoroughly hooked. It was absolutely real, I could see the data and the data was speaking to me, no it was singing like an Italian opera star. Thus began a long long affair with the ecology of hydrogen and how as the smallest and most abundant atom in the universe it has found myriad ways to stick its nose in places where we mere humans cannot possibly have figured out in a few decades of modern physics. That Nature has evolved myriad ways to make use of the energy released by fusion one fusing pair at a time ought not be surprising unless you are a know it all theoretical physicist named Sheldon.
The wonders in the nuclear ecology of energy are surely worth a couple decades.