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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 9, 2004

Nuclear Fusion, Wordsworth, German Cooking. The Usual.

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Posted by Derek

I've been remiss in not mentioning the new paper that's coming out in Physical Review E from the group that's reported possible sonochemical fusion. Their original paper from two years ago was the subject of one of my early blog posts (see the March 4 entry.) I'm very happy to hear that this work is still going on, and has been further refined. This increases the odds that there's something here worth studying. Physical Review is not a pushover of a journal (and neither is Science, where the first paper appeared), so the Purdue/Rensselaer effort has already made it through tougher scrutiny than other unconventional fusion claims. (I know that they've had trouble getting their papers through, but that's to be expected.) This groups seems to be doing this the right way, responding to critics by quietly improving their work and not rushing out to claim Instant Free Energy, Persecution by the Powers That Be, and all the rest of it.

I've mentioned before that the Pons-Fleischmann debacle of 1989 is a very fresh memory with me. I've tried several times, unsuccessfully I think, to write about it in blog posts and other places. I'll give it one more try, with apologies to those who've heard me speak about it before.

It's hard for me to convey what a bolt from the blue that news was. I was living in Germany, doing my post-doctoral work. That Easter Sunday I heard the news on Armed Forces Radio, which I had playing in my lab. (Yes, I was in the lab.) I'd like to be able to see my reaction - I'm sure my head jerked up abruptly to stare disbelieving at the radio. The report credited the Financial Times newspaper, so I trotted down to my car and drove to the train station to buy a copy. I still have it, the original color of the newsprint somewhat altered by time and oxygen.

The weather was nice that day; winter was finally breaking apart in Germany. I headed back to my lab for a while, reading the paper as the sun came in through the windows, before going off to an Easter meal with my labmate and his family. I remember his father asking him in German, using a slang term equivalent to "Yanks": "Have you heard? The Amis have done nuclear fusion!" He was smiling. And I was proud, I was excited, and I didn't know anything more than I'd read in the newspaper. All I could say was that something huge might have happened.

It hadn't. That whole castle began to crumble back into an entropic sandpile as the tide came in over it. It took months, it took years, but it's pretty safe to say that dream is as good as dead, despite occasional odd reports. (Or because that's all there are.) But for a while there, I knew what Wordsworth was talking about when he wrote "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive", although in a better cause, I hope. I was absolutely elated by the news, by what it could mean - cheap energy, a transformed world, oh, the usual. But just as much, what excited me was the thought that discoveries like this were still out there to be made. The world was strange and it had surprises up its sleeve.

I'd waited to hear more about the sonochemical fusion work ever since it came out, but after a few weeks everything was quiet. No arguing, no counterclaims - I'd already had sinking feelings of regret that another attempt at a breakthrough wasn't working out. So it was another surprise when I saw the news. Winter's beginning to break here - I'd been able to enjoy the temperature when I went out to get the paper from the yard. And here it was, the headline about "fusion results replicated."

The hair stood up on my arms and on my neck. But this time, instead of pacing around alone in my lab, I tried, in the kitchen of our house, to explain to my two small children why I'd jumped up like that. I've been somewhat altered by time and oxygen, but I'm glad that such things might still happen, and that I can still react like this when they do.

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