Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Science's evil twin

Hugo, Bart Simpson's evil twin

Every time that I find myself discussing “cold fusion,” I need to explain why I think there exists a "good" science and a "bad" science; the latter sometimes defined also as “pseudo-science” or “pathological science.”. It is a point which is perfectly obvious to scientists, but very difficult to explain to non scientists. So, let me describe a discussion that I had with Steven Featherstone, American journalist and writer, who came to visit me as part of an investigation of the cold fusion phenomenon in Italy, that he recently published in the November issue of “Popular Science”. I'll report our conversation in a novelized form that – I think – keeps the essence of what we said to each other in more than four hours of talking. These are not, obviously, the exact words said in this occasion, but Steve has been so kind to approve this version. So, here it is.


“But what is that, exactly?” Steven said, somewhat surprised, after I had ushered him into the lab, to face the huge metal machine in the center. It was a giant mass of tubes, flanges, connectors, and more. Two students and one technician were busy tooling around with wrenches and screwdrivers; all while watching the screens of several computers placed around the machine.

“A super-microscope, basically”, I said. “it can see atoms, one by one. It is called scanning tunneling microscope.”

Steven seemed to be duly impressed by the scene. He asked to me, "but these students; what they are learning, exactly?" My first answer was, "they are learning how to operate an atomic resolution microscope..." Then, I came up with something different. "But, really, they are learning how to be scientists. It takes years."

As the computer screens kept flashing their images, I tried to explain. “See, Steven, those two young guys, the two graduate students, they are going through a kind of training. It will make them slightly different than the average human being. They are going to learn that, in science, the "pecking order" is often established by proving that your colleague is wrong. No one plays the nice guy in this. Whatever you do will be scrutinized by your colleagues with the specific purpose of proving you wrong. And you'll do the same with your colleagues. It is the way science works.”

Back in my office, we continued the discussion. “Scientists are human beings, of course,” I said, “and to err is human. But the system works in such a way that, as a scientist, you find yourself “embedded” and, normally, it is very difficult to miss the beat. In science, there is this tight system of controls. Mediocre scientists can still perform honest work; bright ones find that their creative flights of fancy are ruthlessly destroyed their colleagues.”

“But,” Steve said, “If the system keeps in check the behavior of people, how can there be a 'bad science', or 'pseudo science'?”

I scratched my head a bit. “Well....” I said,”you know, Steve, pseudo science is just like 'Hugo Simpson,' you remember, he is a character of the Simpsons series. Hugo is Bart Simpson's evil twin. He looks like Bart, but he is not Bart. He lives in the attic and he eats fish heads raw.... So, pseudo-science looks like science, but it is not science. Pseudo-scientists make measurements, or at least what they call measurements. They write papers, they claim to have obtained results. And pseudo-science has academies, journals, conferences, prizes, everything.  But it is all different, it is like Hugo Simpson – he is not Bart!”

At this point, I think I looked fully paranoid to Steve, who started looking at me rather puzzled. As I tried to say more, he stopped me. “All right, Ugo,” he said, “let's go to things real. From what you are telling me, it is clear that you classify 'cold fusion' as pseudo-science”

I didn't even need to nod with my head as Steve continued. “So, just tell me why cold fusion is pseudo science.”

“Steve,” I said, “I read that you visited the nuclear plants in Chernobyl, right?”

“Yes, I did.”

“An interesting experience, I figure.”

“You bet.”

“How would you classify the Chernobyl plant; science or pseudo-science?”

“Well.... the whole thing was in shambles but... hmmm.... it looked pretty much like science to me. I mean, serious stuff.”

“Right. Chernobyl was a disaster, of course. But it was science. The nuclear plants were built by scientists on the basis of scientific results. And the plants worked. They produced energy for many years; until someone had this idea of making a test to see what would happen in case there was a sudden loss of the external power supply.”

“That was the scientific approach?”

“It was. Scientists have this tendency of blowing themselves up with their experiments. It has happened so many times in the history of science! But it is the scientific method: you have an idea, you need to put it to test. See, Steve, I am not so happy to have to say this, but from what I read about the Chernobyl disaster, it was a legitimate experiment. A poorly designed experiment, yes, but a legitimate one. In a way, it even worked. They learned what they should not have done. A bit too late, unfortunately....”

Steve smiled, “It reminds me of the scientist who injected himself with bacteria to prove his theory on the cause of ulcers." He said. "He could prove that he was right!”

“Yes, I know the story. They should never have that guy get even close to a nuclear plant! A friend of mine said once that for humans discovering nuclear energy has been like it would be for ants to discover fire.... but this is another story. “

“Well, all right," Steve continued, "so Chernobyl was good science, and....”

“All right, let me get to my point, Steve.  Most of the victims in Chernobyl were killed by radiations. If you have nuclear reactions you have radiations: that's a fundamental point. And nuclear radiations kill people - we know that. That happened not just in Chernobyl; there are many cases of people who were hurt by radiations - sometimes even killed. You have to be very careful when you deal with nuclear reactions. I have worked a little with X-rays and nuclear isotopes and I can tell you: it is scary stuff. "

"I see your point," Steve said. "You mean that there are no radiations with cold fusion..."

"Yeah, people claiming that they can attain 'cold fusion' show no sign of radiation damage, as far as I know. Not that I wish that they would get hurt, of course, but if they were really getting nuclear fusion, the energies involved are immense and.....

“But,” Steve said, “there is this claim of 'excess heat'.....”

“Well, see, Steve, there are rules. You claim you have this 'excess heat,' Fine, you can claim that, but your claim must be verified. In science, experiments must be clearly explained, must be reviewed by competent people, must be repeatable and not just repeatable - must be actually repeated. And if competent people can't repeat your experiment, then you don't claim that there is a conspiracy against you. You are wrong and you must admit it. You know, this is not arbitrary. These rules are applied because they work. You don't apply the rules? You are not doing science – you are doing pseudo-science. You are like Hugo Simpson in the Simpsons. Not the real Bart.”

Steve seemed to be thoughtful for a while “But, you know, there is one thing about Hugo Simpson.....”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember how the story ends?”

“Hmmm..... I think I understand what you mean.”

“Yes. In the end it is discovered that Hugo is the “good” twin, whereas Bart is the evil one. Could that happen with pseudo-science?”

“You mean, discovering that cold fusion is real science?”

“Yeah.”

I laughed. “Sure! In that case, some scientists will be confined in a damp attic and forced to eat fish heads raw!”

Steve laughed, too. “Do you think it could happen?”

“Well, it is the beauty of science: if you can prove than an accepted theory is wrong, then it is proven that it is wrong - everybody accepts it. But you must provide good proof and follow the rules of science.”

“And you don't think that the cold fusion people.......”

“No way!”

“But they could.”

“In principle.......yes. But, you know, Steve, I am not really afraid of having to eat raw fish heads any time soon!”

“Which reminds me of something....”

“Yep! You know, in Italy we can have something much better than raw fish heads for lunch!”

“I was sure of that. Let's go!”


11 comments:

  1. Loved the part on ants to discover fire. I believe this makes a strong point towards the need for our beloved scientists to focus on not so violent technologies, instead of playing with dangerous things like nuclear reactions.

    In the energy field for instance, it seems it would be much more appropriate for the well being of humans that we were able to improve the efficiency of energy generation with conventional sources, transmission, distribution and consumption.

    Science got disconnected from society, and it seems that this disconnection is what gets science far from Bart and close to Hugo, in a way that funding leads science paths, not societies needs.

    As a result we have all kinds of violent techs out there, to serve the needs of military, funded by huge defense budgets, while needs of people are funded by scarce finance from international cooperation, foundations and more recently crowd-funding.

    Establishing the link between science and society would trigger a new era of evolution to mankind, a renaissance of human values and development towards a world of justice, peace and well being.

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    1. Gustavo is talking about engineering here, not science. Engineering is the application of science to make life easier/more enjoyable/healtier. So engineering is intimately linked with society, as one defines the other (engineering is about serving a specific need or want in society, albeit sometimes latent).

      The problem is that *good* engineering is so reliable that it becomes ingrained in our way of life, and hence is almost invisible to many people. You only notice it when it is absent. For example, where do you think clean water in cities comes from, or where the waste water goes to? What will happen to this water supply if ubiquitous cheap energy disappears?

      As for efficiency in energy generation, combined cycle gas turbines are close to the theoretical limit (about 60% based on the current temperatures). My point here is that most generation and transmission technologies are generally already quite efficient, with only a little scope for improvement. Note that there will always be a delay of about 3 or 4 decades for the most efficient tech to become universal, due to the embedded capital investment (e.g. there are still many low temperature coal plants operating, even though supercritcal plant is far more efficient). Efficiency at the end use side (i.e. consumption) tends to be less efficient, but this is largely due to economic, social and/or psychological factors rather than technological issues.

      In short, science and engineering has made lots of mistakes, but by and large, people (i.e. society) live longer, healthier, happier lives in a technologically advanced society. There's no big conspiracy out there - as Paul Weller sang in the Jam song Going Underground: "the public get what the public want!"

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  2. Science is a bunch of egos looking for grants to play in their chosen sand box. There are so many proven methods that just need some tweaking to make them really usable, and cold fusion is NOT one of them. A multi-billion dollar boondoggle going nowhere slowly...

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  3. Hi Ugo, Jeremy Grantham writes for Nature:

    http://www.nature.com/news/be-persuasive-be-brave-be-arrested-if-necessary-1.11796

    "This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave."

    cheers,

    Alex

    Alex

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  4. Really impressive your microscope, the same for the apparatus that Piantelli uses to build thin film on nickel rods inside his cells
    http://newenergytimes.com/v2/news/2008/29img/PiantelliKnudsenMachineW.jpg

    Ugo, you shouldn't underestimate those guys, maybe it won't be cold fusion (strictly speaking) but at the end this will be nothing more than a little detail.

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  5. Cold fusion has been replicated in over 200 major laboratories, often at high signal to noise ratios. For example, tritium has been measured at millions of times background. I have a collection of 1,200 peer-reviewed journal papers on cold fusion, copied from the library at Los Alamos, and 2,000 other papers published Los Alamos, China Lake, the NRL, Mitsubishi, the NSF and various other mainstream organizations. This literature proves beyond question that cold fusion is real. You will find the bibliography and hundreds of full-text papers here:

    http://lenr-canr.org/

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  6. Jed, don't waste your time, this is a lost cause. This kind of people want to drink the "cup of tea" and after the first one, another one.
    Nevertheless they don't understand that when all that will happen, it will be too late for so-called "science" and so-called "scientists".

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  7. Ok, now I probably resign to everything...:

    More than 1,000 new coal plants planned worldwide, figures show

    World Resources Institute identifies 1,200 coal plants in planning across 59 countries, with about three-quarters in China and India

    Is the statement "WE ARE FUBAR" exaggeration?

    Cheers,

    Alex

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  8. Replies
    1. Well, after all, with a bit of soy sauce and wasabi, raw fish heads are not so bad........

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    2. They are extremely healthy when used for a fish broth. But make sure you're on good terms with your neighbours before starting.

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