THE continuing news blitz over tabletop hydrogen fusion is both tantalizing and obscene. It's tantalizing because, as of this writing, there still is no clear indication of a genuine scientific breakthrough that engineers can develop into a virtually limitless source of energy. This is so, even though hundreds of scientists around the world have been feverishly chasing the chimera loosed at a hastily called press conference March 23 by E.Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of Southampton (England) University.
The obscenity lies in the penchant for some of these scientists to forsake the normal channels of professional communication and announce half-baked results of slapdash experiments at press conferences. This has kept the story of what might be a major discovery befogged in confusion for over a month. It has also made some of the scientists look silly. Consider, for example, the Georgia Tech team that had to call a second press conference to report a technical flaw that invalidated its previously announced ``confirmation'' of the Utah experiments.
Pons and Fleischmann set the style for this confusion with their original announcement.
They had been working for half a decade with small battery-powered electrochemical cells filled with heavy water. The electric current breaks up the water molecules into deuterium (double- heavy hydrogen) and oxygen. Palladium electrodes then absorb the deuterium. The work had reached a point where, the experimenters claim, cells produced three to four times as much energy as it took to operate them. Furthermore, there were signs that deuterium fusion was taking place inside the palladium.
Meanwhile, at nearby Brigham Young University, Steven E. Jones and associates were running different but comparable experiments that gave evidence of fusion but produced little energy.
Reportedly, the two teams agreed to submit reports of their work simultaneously to the journal Nature March 24. But then the Utah team unexpectedly called the March 23 press conference, saying a paper would appear in Nature later.
Eventually Nature did receive the papers, gave them to scientific referees to review, and returned them to their authors for revision. The Brigham Young team answered the referees' questions and Nature accepted the paper. Pons and Fleischmann, however, withdrew their submission.
This was a graceless move. Scientists who want to confirm the Utah work have been hampered by not knowing, in detail, exactly what was done.
Indeed, partial reports of that work and of the proliferating experiments elsewhere have been circulating globally via fax transmissions and electronic mail. But crucial details always seem to be lacking. Experiments that reportedly confirm the Utah results have generally turned out to be inconclusive.
It's time for the scientists involved to cool the ``gold fever'' the Utah press conference ignited. Whatever wealth and glory may come of tabletop fusion lie far in the future. The important business at hand is to learn exactly what is happening in the jars - it may not even be fusion - and whether it has any bearing on energy supply. This is best done through careful research that is reported through normal means of scientific communication to ensure that the reports are adequately detailed and technically sound.
Meanwhile, the public should take all claims of fusion in a jar with skepticism. When scientists hype their work, not even the experts know who to believe.