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WITH oil washing ashore in Alaska and Los Angeles choked in smog and concern growing over holes in Earth's ozone layer, there's a natural yearning for energy that is cheap and clean and inexhaustible. When that desire meets up with the competitive quest for fame and glory, the result can be a combustible combination that produces more public relations heat than intellectual light.

That seems to have been the case with the current flap over whether chemists E. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann produced nuclear fusion in a jar.

Something did happen in that tabletop experiment in Utah. But was it fusion - the power of the sun and hydrogen bombs - produced at an unheard-of low temperature? Apparently not, at least according to the battalion of scientists who have ganged up on the Utah duo.

But just as Mr. Pons and Mr. Fleischmann seem to have jumped the gun on claims about their work (quite a few others did too and had to back down), it would be wrong to assume that it has no worth. And it certainly won't do to have physicists and chemists at each other's throats over turf.

True research demands rigorous challenging of scientific assertions and conclusions, but it has more to do with fact than opinion. As Johann Rafelski of the University of Arizona said at the meeting of the American Physical Society this week: ``Science is about knowledge, it's not about believing.''

Scientific research is a means to an end: understanding the physical world so we can take care of it - and each other - better. Environmentally safe and renewable energy production is a key to this end, and fusion needs to be pursued thoroughly. There's something there worth finding out, and it could make a big difference for mankind.

Lest the scientific community begin to resemble a bunch of Muppet-like Bunsen Honeydews (and his not-so-able assistant Beaker), it's time for everybody to head back to the lab. Turn off the public relations department. Lock up the university president when he gets the urge to ask Congress for $25 million. Put on your smocks, and get back to the real business of science.

As theoretical physicist Rafelski said, ``The story is far from over.''

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