With Martin Fleischmann’s passing on the 3 August, obituaries around the world have revived memories of his notorious association with the cold fusion debacle in the early 1990s. In a letter to Chemistry World, David Williams, a former colleague of Fleischmann’s, attempts to redress the balance, painting an affectionate picture of a brilliant electrochemist, and is careful to convey the importance of Fleischmann’s contributions to science, and his charismatic genius. Williams’ personal account of the episode that led to Fleischmann and Stanley Pons’ Utah press conference and their subsequent pillorying is enlightening.
Science is ruled by the laws of systematic, empirical investigation, where incremental advances and the gradual acquisition of knowledge are the status quo. Truly groundbreaking discoveries are few and far between (but there are just enough to keep our hopes alive). So when such announcements are made, they are of course greeted with the healthy and necessary corrective moderation of scepticism.
And mistakes do happen. Recent examples include the reconstruction of the oxo wall and the withdrawal of record proton conductivity claims. And the retraction watch blog is steadily ticking away, silently intoning its litany of errata.
But once its trust has been betrayed, the science community can be unforgiving, and a reputation damaged is hard to regain, long after the press has emptied the carcass and moved on. Undoubtedly, Fleischmann and Pons tragically mishandled their situation. But where science is ideal, objective and dispassionate, its practitioners are only human and – believer and sceptic alike – they are emotionally responsive. Witness Peter Higgs’ tears at CERN earlier this year. Or the attacks on Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s (now largely discredited) announcement of arsenic life. Or the hostility that followed Fleischmann back to England and sent Pons into isolation.
In his letter, Williams wonders if it was just a single piece of evidence that swayed Fleischmann’s decision to go public. How volatile is temperance in the heat of excitement. One can only imagine how unbearable the tension must have been; how irresistible the lure of proclaiming one’s success; and how crushing the defeat.
Those treacherous imposters triumph and disaster are courted at one’s peril. But it’s often too much for mere mortals to resist.