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Heating up a cold theory

MIT professor risks career to reenergize discredited

Although he's a tenured Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor, Peter Hagelstein leads a life of exile.

He has never made full professor. He no longer has a lab. Barely anyone came to a lecture he gave about his research a year and a half ago.

Virtually all of Hagelstein's problems stem from his study of cold fusion, a type of nuclear reaction that -- if it exists at all -- might have the power to create unlimited, clean energy, essentially on a tabletop. Fifteen years ago, two University of Utah chemists claimed they created such a reaction, an announcement quickly denounced as quackery. Today, cold fusion is as scientifically scorned as UFOs.

Now the soft-spoken Hagelstein, who won accolades in the 1980s for conceptualizing a laser critical to Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" defense plan, and cold fusion have a shot at mainstream science again. Three months ago, the US Department of Energy quietly agreed to examine what cold fusion supporters say is increasing evidence -- culminating at a conference at MIT last summer -- that the reaction exists and is reproducible. If the agency agrees, it will likely mean an injection of both funding and legitimization for the forgotten research.

The Department of Energy review is focusing attention on a small band of scientists, including Hagelstein, who continue to work on cold fusion long after its public demise. There are an estimated 100 to 200 of these researchers in the world, many suffering from stagnated careers or damaged reputations because of their refusal to give up on a concept the vast majority of scientists say doesn't exist.

"It's not that we have kept quiet as much as no one has looked at what we were doing," said Hagelstein, a reserved but passionate man given to nervous laughter. "We are getting good and powerful results -- we want our name cleared."

Cold fusion defies known physics. Even its supporters remain at a loss to fully explain it. Still, if it exists and is reproducible, it could revolutionize the world, decentralizing energy production so that each home could have its own inexpensive power source without damaging the environment.

"This whole story is one our grandkids will learn about," said Edmund Storms, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist who has built his own cold fusion lab next to his New Mexico home. "It has the drama, the conflict and it has hopefully the potential to save mankind."

Fusion confusion
It looked like an experiment a high school chemistry student could do.

Using power from a car battery, chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced they had recreated the energy source of the sun, stars, and hydrogen bomb by packing atoms together so tightly they appeared to fuse in the contraption. The room temperature experiment gave off more energy than it consumed, the researchers said, amounts that couldn't be explained away by current theories.

Within hours, scientists the world over rushed to replicate the work. Finding an energy source through fusion had consumed researchers for 40 years before the announcement, with little to show for it. Unlike fission, which splits atoms to produce energy and is used in nuclear reactors, cold fusion seemed to produce no dangerous byproducts.

But confusing results trickled in. Researchers at Moscow University said they reproduced the results. Princeton researchers said they couldn't.

At MIT, Hagelstein, a theoretical physicist, felt obligated to see if it could be true.

Growing up in smog-choked Los Angeles, he became impassioned at a young age about saving the environment. He remembers bicycling to the beach with a thick layer of smog above him, and the frustration he felt when, as a member of his high school ecology club, he could do precious little to fix it.

Though painfully shy, the 49-year-old boyish-faced scientist has a fierce and unshakable trust in himself: He will not stop work on anything unless he is satisfied it is or isn't true. And Hagelstein needed to decide for himself whether cold fusion actually made sense. Within weeks of the Pons/Fleischmann announcement, he submitted four papers to the journal Physical Review Letters theorizing on what might have happened.

Eight months later, a US Department of Energy panel recommended against any special funding for cold fusion. Scientists around the world, deeply angry at their lost time and what they saw as grandstanding by Pons and Fleischmann, went back to their methodical grind. Few bothered to look at cold fusion again and many still see it as one of the biggest scientific fiascoes in history.

But Hagelstein wasn't done with his calculations. He thought the government's review was too brief. And in many ways, cold fusion reminded him of his work on the X-ray laser in the late 1970s. Then an MIT graduate student, he was told the X-ray laser was a pipe dream, an impossibility. But after spending five years working through nights and weekends, he finally came up with a scheme that held up under mathematical scrutiny. His work earned him a prestigious scientific prize.

About four years after the initial Pons/Fleischmann experiment, Hagelstein became convinced that cold fusion experiments showed that a new kind of physics was at play -- results were fleeting and not always reproducible, but he believed they were valid.

His life changed. Although Hagelstein developed and teaches graduate-level quantum mechanics and numerical modeling classes, and recently wrote a textbook, he keeps a focus on cold fusion.

He spends his time methodically poring over mathematical equations that might explain cold fusion, and visiting laboratories that are working on it. Once a particular pathway proves a dead-end -- a process that can take weeks or months -- he moves to another.

Many critics think he is wasting time on a foolish subject. Yet many people have the same word to describe Hagelstein: Brilliant, blessed with clarity and an incredibly creative mind.

"These are smart people" studying cold fusion, said Mildred Dresselhaus, an MIT institute professor who served on the Department of Energy review board that recommended against funding cold fusion work. "What are the reasons they are still doing it?"

Ridicule and results
Cold fusion became a joke. Books were written on the debacle, with titles referring to voodoo science and grand hoaxes. Scientific journals routinely rejected work by cold fusion researchers. Tenure came for Hagelstein, but only barely: There were complaints about his cold fusion work.

"In the beginning we were pioneers, but to take the sustained abuse over time, it can be devastating," Hagelstein said -- about his cold fusion colleagues, not himself. Speaking in a slow, measured voice, he refuses to indulge in regrets or blame. "We knew it was going to be tough."

What science rejected, pop culture embraced. A software company, a snowboard maker, and even an Iowa rock band adopted cold fusion's name. It became the subject of the 1997 movie "The Saint."

Cold fusion research was funded for several years overseas after the US panel condemned it, and today, cold fusion researchers say they continue to get private money -- although how much is hard to quantify.

To other scientists, this is the natural course of bad science: It doesn't get much public funding, and eventually goes away. Some of these critics are eager for the new Department of Energy review in hopes it might silence cold fusion advocates for good.

"If this was really happening, there would not be a way from stopping them from going forward," said Frank Close, an Oxford theoretical physicist who wrote a book about the cold fusion episode. "I have no doubt there are wonderful things in nature we have yet to discover, but that does not mean every random fluctuation in the data is the holy grail you are looking for."

So over time, cold fusion scientists have become members of a small, close-knit culture unto themselves. They visit each other's labs. They have their own newsletters. They have their own conferences. And every year, their results get stronger, the group says, results that cannot be explained away by error or any other reason other than a new nuclear process.

Last August, at the group's 10th annual conference, organized by Hagelstein at MIT, results were the strongest yet. (At the 11th annual conference in France this fall, researchers expect even more reproducible results.)

"By the end of the conference, we had officially crossed the threshold," Hagelstein said. With the cold fusion community's help, he drafted a letter to the US Department of Energy asking for a new review hearing, a chance for someone to look at the community's work. The department agreed to a meeting, and later, to an official review.

The review won't be finished until at least the fall, and in the cold fusion community, concerns are surfacing. What if the review board is stacked with cold fusion detractors? Maybe the review will not be in-depth enough to take into account what cold fusion supporters say is evidence of a strange, new physics.

Hagelstein and his colleagues intend to keep pursuing their work even if the Department of Energy sides against them again. He is resolute. But sometimes, he sounds weary.

"The day I know it's wrong, I'm dropping it," Hagelstein said, almost sounding like he yearned for that time. "If someone can explain to me (it's not real), I would stop."

Beth Daley can be reached at 

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