Where Grey Matter meets Dark Matter

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Episode 7 - 15 March 2009

Note: We recorded this episode at Chris' rockin pad, and Chris has recently added a cat to his household. And further, Anthony is allergic to cats. Add a dose of anti-histamines with their mind-dulling effects, and their incomplete sinus control, and you have the disaster that occurred during this recording. Please excuse his sniffling and bizarre comments.

In 1989 Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman announced at a press conference that they had found excess heat in their experiments. This finding is completely mundane, yet their explanation for this anomaly provoked one of the great controversies in science. They claimed that nuclear fusion was taking place in their electro-chemical cells at near room temperature, a claim that came to be known as 'cold fusion'.

This caused such outrage because fusion is only known to operate in hellishly hot environments like the interior of a star or a hydrogen bomb. Huge fusion research reactors are constructed to try to emulate these conditions in a controlled way, so that the energy can be converted into electricity and added to the power grid - allowing us all to watch reruns of JAG. If this same reaction could be done at room temperature, then the days of worrying about dirty and expensive electricty would be gone.

Fusion is the holy grail of power generation - it is orders of magnitude more powerful than all the other methods we have of capturing energy, and it is extremely clean. Usually when one talks about fusion, they are referring to the conversion of hydrogen to helium, although more exotic fusion processes occur in the core of dying stars. The product of this hydrogen fusion is: helium, protons, neutrons, some gamma rays, and a hell of a lot of energy. As long as you're not standing around the fusion pile, these products are harmless, with minimal radioactive waste to dispose of.

Problem is nuclei don't like to fuse - like facts and homeopathy they repel each other. Physicists call this repulsion a 'potential barrier', meaning that there is a barrier preventing the two things being brought into contact. This barrier is described by an energy, which is the energy that is required to get over the barrier and have the two particles fuse. For hydrogen, the barrier is 400keV (the energy that an electron would pick up if it was accelerated through 400,000 volts; keep in mind that standard Australian household electricity is a paltry 240 volts). For comparison, the average energy of a hydrogen atom at room temperature is about 0.03ev (10,000,000 times too small) and even in the sun the average energy is only 1.3keV. Be carfeul - this is the average energy, which means there are some atoms with a lot less energy, and some, very few, with a lot more; even enough to get over this barrier. This means that only a small proportion of the hydrogen in the sun is being fused at any moment; which is good since otherwise it would explode.

Given this huge discrepancy, most physicists are, shall we say, doubtful that cold fusion can occur. Yet proponents cling to their claims: that anomalous energy is being generated, and that they are detecting the products of fusion. However, it seems that these claims don't overlap - the existence of excess heat energy does not always correlate with the existence of fusion byproducts. Proponents have made vague suggestions that there is a new method of fusion that is so far unknown, however, there is no theoretical framework to back this up. In fact, given that fusion is so well understood, for cold fusion to be true, a good portion of existing physics would have to be wrong.

It is at this point that proponents of fringe theories start talking about paradigm shift, see for example the talk that goes on amongst believers in psychic phenomena. But one set of observations does not a paradigm shift. For those that may not have heard of the phrase before, 'paradigm shift' is a concept that was popularised by Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science. Essentially, it refers to the idea that science proceeds under the auspices of the pradigm of the moment, with all observations and theories being massaged to fit this rigid mould. Only once the weight of evidence has become too burdensome for the current paradigm (and the old theorists have died off) does a sudden and tumultuous shift to a new paradigm occur. There is some small merit in this idea, but unfortunately, this is one of the refuges of the postmodernist. Classic paradigm shifts that are regularly pointed to are: the Copernican 'revolution' (where we moved from an earth-centred universe to a sun-centred one); quantum mechanics; Darwinian evolution; and Einstein's relativity. Think of a paradigm shift as a great penny drop - everyone suddenly realises that it was staring them in the face all this time.

Cold fusion has none of the hallmarks of a paradigm shift. There is no great pile of difficult-to-explain observations. There are no burgeoning new theories which require the abandoning of current ones. There are no deadends in other fields that point inexorably to this conclusion. In short, if cold fusion were true, rather than tying together many seemingly inexplicable results into a unified whole, it would render most of physics completely baffling and we would have to start this whole 'science' thing over again. While this isn't proof that cold fusion is not true, it certainly indicates that we should try pretty damn hard to fit the observations into current theory before we abandon everything.


  • This book (that's right, a book - with paper; I had to walk to the library) contains a lot of information about the lattice structure of palladium-hydrogen systems (see Section 5.2): Alefeld, G. & Volkl, J. (ed) (1978), Hydrogen in metals I: Basic properties, Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
  • Here's a good introductory physics textbook for all the basics: Halliday, D., Resnick, R. & Walker, J. (1997), Fundamentals of physics: Extended 5th edition, John Wiley & Sons, New York.
  • Here is an article from a cold fusion proponent, describing the current state of the field: Biberian, J. (2007), "Condensed matter nucelar science (cold fusion): an update", International Journal of Nuclear Energy Science and Technology, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 31-42. You can find it here.
  • And here is the 2004 US Department of Energy review describing the current state of the field (note that its conclusions are somewhat different to those of the paper in the previous dotpoint).


BETA: TekWar: "The gripping futuristic thriller from Star Trek's own Captain Kirk". This actually was written on the front cover. And, depending on who you ask, it's mostly true. Along with the stun guns and flying cars, the main focus of the book is the drug Tek. This a futuristic drug, much more advanced than the chemical stimulants of today. Tek is a small computer chip which you insert into a 'brainbox'. This box is connected to a headset, which you obviously place on your head. Then, depending on the type of chip you bought from that shady street dealer, the headset induces some sort of fantasy. Presumably it works by using electromagnetic fields to disrupt the existing electromagnetic fields in your brain.

By itself, this claim has a lot of merit: neurons are essentially little channels for electrical pulses, so there is every reason that a magnetic field can change what a brain is doing. However, the current state of technology seems to be limited to giving some sensations, either physical or emotional, but without any real detail.

But is this type of fantasy stimulation ever possible? Well, who knows. Theoretically, if you knew the positions of each neuron and what they all did in the broad scheme of things, then it is 'just' an engineering problem to build something that can manipulate them. But beyond that minor complication, the problem seems to be that each person's brain is wired differently, and so it doesn't seem like it could ever be possible for a single system to generate detailed fantasies for more than one person. In fact, a person's brain is changing all the time, meaning that building a device that will work even for one person more than once is questionable.

But perhaps that isn't really what is going on, maybe the Tek just induces a dream-like state where you (or your subconscious) control the fantasy. This does seem a lot more plausible since it appears that, broadly speaking, large scale brain-architecture is similar in most people - the seeing bit is over here, smell is here, memories are stored in this sort of area, etc...

The idea of what makes it a harmful drug is also interesting. If there was a machine that allowed you to be happy all the time, and would let you live out all your wildest dreams, then who wouldn't be on it all the time? It's not much of a stretch to imagine people forgoing food and sleep to keep Tekking. The question of addiction is probably far from being answered, but it is definitely possible. Lastly, this thing is clearly messing with your brain - that's probably not going to be good for you.


  • Carlson, N.R. (2004), Physiology of Behaviour - 8th Edition, Pearson Education Inc., Boston, USA.
  • Shatner, William (1990), TekWar, Bantam Press, Great Britain.

Oops. Mistakes we shouldn't have made but did:

When Anthony was talking about comparing the energy of hydrogen at room temperature (~0.03eV) to the potential barrier for hydrogen fusion (~400keV) he was out by a couple of orders of magnitude. The potential barrier is about 10,000,000 times bigger than the average energy of room temperature hydrogen.

The TekWar books were copyrighted between 1989 and 1997.

The quote by Emmett "Doc" Brown (from Back to the Future) that we were trying to think of was: "Not a word, not a word now! Quiet...Donations! You want me to make a donation to the Coast Guard Youth Auxillary!"

During the quiz, the question of the radius of the earth came up. Anthony guessed that the circumference was about 36,000kms, so just divide that by 2π. A more accurate figure for the radius is: 6,371 kms. The circumference is actually 40,041 kms. Note that these are averages over the whole earth, since the earth is not perfectly spherical.


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