by Gary Taubes
It’s rare for a single discovery to change scientific history, but it happens. Albert Einstein earned instant immortality with his General Theory of Relativity; so did Watson and Crick, for figuring out the chemical structure of DNA. And for a few short weeks in 1989, it looked as though two obscure chemists were destined for the same elite club.
In March of that year, B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had mastered controlled fusion, the form of nuclear energy that powers the sun and the stars—not in a megamillion-dollar reactor running at tens of millions of degrees, the way physicists said it had to be done, but in what amounted to a test tube, at room temperature. If they were right, they had found a cheap, nonpolluting, virtually endless source of energy.
Pons and Fleischmann not only failed to become household names, they ended up with irreparably tarnished reputations, and in his detailed account of the “cold fusion” episode, Taubes, a New York City-based science writer, makes it clear why. They performed a sloppy experiment, then followed it up with aggressive publicity flavored with secrecy and paranoia. Taubes’s tale of ego and ambition is fascinating and exhaustive. The details occasionally become exhausting as well, but this remarkable glimpse into the dark side of science is worth the effort. (Random House, $25)