- Too hot to handle by Frank Close
W.H. Allen, 376 pp, £14.99, January 1991, ISBN 1 85227 206 6
In the last few years the University of Utah has bestowed on the world two much-trumpeted scientific achievements, the artificial heart and cold fusion. That two such seriously cracked ideas should sprout on the same ground is a matter that should worry the State of Utah considerably. Indeed, there’s enough embarrassment left over for others to share, especially from the hilarious tale of cold fusion. The artificial heart proved an ideal mechanism for driving a Robocop but too fierce for the mere physiology of the human frame. After only a handful of patients had suffered the monstrous mechanism, its use was mercifully curtailed by Federal regulators. Yet the heart caper made the University of Utah look like a sober scientific institution compared with the episode that followed.
Vol. 13 No. 19 · 10 October 1991
Nicholas Wade’s review of Frank Close’s book on the cold fusion work conducted by Fleischman and Pons (LRB, 29 August) suggests that Wade would profit from reading Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge. In the latter, Polanyi offers an account of the way science really works which differs drastically from the conventional wisdom. Peter Medawar’s acerbic correspondence with Arthur Koestler which relates to Medawar’s critical review of The Act of Creation also indirectly illuminates various aspects of the unfortunate Fleischman-Pons episode. The cold fusion fracas differs from many similar scientific scandals in that the preliminary experimental results implied large economic benefits in the future. In other words, the investigation had important technological consequences which inevitably swayed all sorts of decisions related to it at Utah and other research institutions. As Medawar observes in the review mentioned above, there are no rewards (either accolades or money) for coming second in the scientific-technological enterprise.
Finally, although science and technology are not the same thing, they are not distinguished carefully in the examples Wade cites in relation to the University of Utah. The scientific reputation of the University of Utah is a very high-order abstraction, but if granted existence, it would relate more to the stature of the late Professor Henry Eyring and the excellent team of physical chemists he led for many years. I am sure that many chemists remain puzzled by Eyring’s failure to get a deserved Nobel Prize. On the other hand, the aberration of Pons and Fleischman and the invention of a defective heart machine will soon be forgotten. One does not judge a team by the mistakes that are inevitably made by some of its players.
Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Newfoundland