pitchblende2I was introduced to the world of the atom and nuclear processes as a child of about 7. My father was a nuclear scientist and we had a wonderful family rock collection containing many samples of uranium and other nuclear minerals. I still remember the ‘pitch blende’ which was a slab of dark rock almost black with a network of veins and filigree of a yellowish mineral.

We naturally had both UV lights and a Geiger counter in the house, didn’t everyone. My friends and I would sometime sneak away with some rock samples and the Geiger counter to play atomic hide and seek. Those hiding had to carry a piece of mineral and the one seeking got to carry the Geiger counter. Some of the samples were fairly `hot`and it was easy to find the hiding party.

This childhood introduction to atomic and nuclear science at my fathers knee was supplemented by the stacks of scientific journals, papers, and reports that filled the house. My reading lessons and story times often had something completely different, something more glowing in the world of children`s literature.

With a brother five years my senior I didn’t have a chance to follow in my fathers engineer scientist footsteps, a role my brother was groomed for. I took a road less travelled in our family and became an ecologist, the natural science world instead of the `physical`science world.

But as the decades passed one day in my early 40’s I just happened to be working on a environmental project at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto. My favourite coffee break room just happened to be the room that the nuclear scientists hung out in. One day in late March of 1989 something happened in my environment. A stimulus permeated the air.

In an instant my fathers nuclear science genes were activated and after decades waiting for their chance they went critical and I began with a passion my study of the strange atomic and nuclear ecology that had materialized seemingly out of thin air.

mn_coldfusionThat morning in late March in the coffee room there was a TV set and a huddle of excited men surrounding it. They had callipers and rulers and while watching a video of a news broadcast of the day before were making stopping the tape and making measurements of what was being shown on the screen. It was Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons at the University of Utah announcing their discovery of cold fusion and showing off the apparatus, the test tubes in which it had been produced. The EPRI scientists and engineers were reverse engineering the apparatus and they would have their replica running within days at Stanford Research.

While I was not privy to the office and lab work the coffee break room was always abuzz with excited talk, speculation, invention, and wonder. Before long I had managed to beg some precious palladium metal and some heavy water and had my own reverse engineered apparatus running on the side of my kitchen counter.

As it turns out sometimes in science, and especially in frontier science, its not what you know its whether you are spooked into inaction by what you don`t know that makes the difference between a productive experimentalist and a stodgy non-productive one. Theorists are an utterly different form of life, something more akin to a sentient jelly fish than a large brained bi-ped. Engineers no one knows where they come from, some place dark and dank I think.

In any case the ecosystem of cold fusion was shaping ¬†up fast. And it was a perfect opportunity for an ecologist who was born and raised an atomic and nuclear scientist to thrive. One of my advisers in that first ten years of cold fusion gave me a great piece of advice one day when I was bemoaning the trials and tribulations of the pecking order behaviour of so many in the field. He founded a fabulously successful chip fab industry equipment producer and he said, “You know my company is absolutely dependent on making breakthrough inventions. This is how we make it work. Every year at the Christmas party we look around the table and vote on who guessed best during that year. Who ever was the best guesser was appointed president of the company for the coming year. We did not want the guy who did the most perfect execution of plans, we wanted the guy who took the chances and guessed how to invent new ways of doing things.”

So over my years in cold fusion I know one thing for certain I have a very good track record at guessing the right way to go into this unknown territory. It came naturally to me as ecology is always about being in territory that is so complex and interactive that one has almost no chance of creating a clear predictive path or theory. If you want to move you have to constantly make your best guess.