Why peer reviewed publication is not enough

Obviously Climate Audit has captured a small part of the zeitgeist of the scientific world, especially in regards to the obvious failures of peer review to detect bad practice and scientific misconduct. It has been asked by some climate scientists why access to original data and full disclosure is so important, as if proper audit and replication were an invasive medical procedure rather than intrinsic part of the Scientific Method.

From another area of science, which has already had one thumping case of scientific misconduct already, another one appears to be coming to the boil: the claim of tabletop fusion.

Nuclear engineer Rusi Taleyarkhan’s claims that he had achieved table-top fusion in collapsing bubbles caused a storm when they were first reported in Science in 2002. If the effect is real, and could be harnessed, it might one day provide an almost limitless source of energy.

Four years later, Taleyarkhan’s work retains an almost magical ability to grab the headlines, most recently in January, when his latest claims were promoted in a press release by the American Physical Society, and Science defended its initial publication of the work in an editorial as recently as 3 March. Millions of dollars are being spent trying to repeat the work, including $800,000 from the US Department of Defense. But corroboration remains elusive.

Taleyarkhan and his co-authors vigorously affirm that the effect they have seen is real, and have published several further positive studies – most recently in Physical Review Letters, in which they claim to have countered previous technical objections to their work.

Yet there has been no independent confirmation of their results, and an investigation by Nature of the circumstances surrounding the experiments reveals serious questions about their validity. Interviews with researchers who have worked closely with Taleyarkhan at Purdue University in the past two years, a re-analysis of his data by a group critical of him, as well as a review by the US patent office, suggest that serious doubts are prevalent in the physics community.

And if that wasn’t enough, independent verification is slightly tougher that is strictly necessary:

Purdue University did not promote Taleyarkhan’s most recent paper to the media. This may reflect the fact that other faculty members at the university, who are trying to repeat the work, have been concerned by Taleyarkhan’s actions since he arrived there full-time in 2004. The steps he has taken, they say, include claiming positive results from equipment on which they had seen only negative data, before removing the equipment from their lab altogether [My emphasis].

And for Steve, some excuses which should bring deja vu…

Taleyarkhan defended his findings in a 2005 episode of the BBC’s Horizon strand, protesting: “My lab has been audited, my instruments have been audited, my books have been audited, the data speaks for itself.”

No, Dr Taleyarkhan, it doesn’t. Nobody can replicate your work and you’re making claims which cannot be checked.

12 Comments

  1. Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 11:09 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I followed this controversy initally. One of the main complaints was that he didn’t measure the base neutron emmissions of his vessels before the experiment and just compared results with a control. As the lab has used radioactive elements extensively, it could simply be contamination problems. Seemed like a basic thing you would measure in any experimental setup.

  2. Ian
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 11:27 AM | Permalink | Reply

    As Someone pointed out earlier. This case, cold fusion, and now I would say temperature reconstructions have become pathalogical science — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathological_science

    * The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
    * The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability, or many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
    * There are claims of great accuracy.
    * Fantastic theories contrary to experience are suggested.
    * Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses.
    * The ratio of supporters to critics rises and then falls gradually to oblivion.

  3. John Davis
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 11:53 AM | Permalink | Reply

    The more “conventional” Cold Fusion people, privately having kept the flame(?) burning ever since the original Pons & Fleischmann fiasco, finally forced a review of the evidence for CF at the US Department of Energy last year.
    They presented what they considered to be very strong evidence of the veracity & repeatability of Cold Fusion and appeared to view the meeting in a somewhat triumphal way.
    Unfortunately they found that the Scientific Consensus was still strongly against them. No new research programme was authorised and they were basically told to take a hike.
    Moral: Even if the establishment seems finally to be listening to you, don’t raise your hopes too high.

  4. ET SidViscous
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 1:10 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Not that I’ve been following this closely but I did recall something from recent times on this.

    http://www.ascribe.org/cgi-bin/behold.pl?ascribeid=20050712.144543&time=15%2002%20PDT&year=2005&public=1

    I’m not sure exactly what that source is, but it shows the same problems as Climate science, and that’s reporters not knowing enough of what they write about.

    This is a better article direct from Purdue.

    http://news.uns.purdue.edu/html4ever/2004/0400302.Taleyarkhan.fusion.html

    I’m still not seeing any practicality as an energy source. The Purdue article talks about using the system as a source of neutrons. Don’t really see how. The article specifically states they haven’t reached break even yet, and require neutrons to get the system to work. As a result you don’t even need to ascribe the effect to contamination. They say it generates 2.5 MEv and tritium. Wouldn’t that happen if you bombard deuterium with neutrons to begin with? i.e. you would get some small scale fusion or other nuclear reaction to occur. Isn’t it possible this could be explained by some more prosaic reaction?

    Even the Purdue article shows some lack of understanding.

    “Whereas conventional nuclear fission reactors produce waste products that take thousands of years to decay, the waste products from fusion plants are short-lived, decaying to non-dangerous levels in a decade or two.”

    What they don’t say is that it is not the waste products that take thousands of years to decay that are dangerous. As with most radioactive elements it’s the ones with short half lives that are the most energetic/dangerous. The long half life stuff is either something like an alpha emitter, which you can hold in your hand and it won’t be dangerous (unless it’s a massive alpha emitter then you can get radiation burns, but if it is, then it doesn’t have a thousand year half life), or it has occasional high energy emissions, usually as a result of exotic transmutations outside of the normal alpha stuff, that are so low in count as to not be very dangerous. As with many things particle radiation toxicity is a statistical thing. One particle can be dangerous, but it is very very unlikely.

    It’s all the short half life stuff that very energetic and dangerous.

    Anyways I still don’t see how this could be used as an energy source. deuterated acetone has a boiling point of 55.5C, if you generate large amounts’ of fusion, so as to create enough neutrons or heat to generate power your going to fairly quickly boil the Acetone, spoiling your reaction.

    In other words, if you try to scale this up you come to the same problem in a normal fusion reactor, namely containment. You’ll have to do something to keep the acetone from boiling (massive pressure?) so you start using a lot of energy to do that.

    Creating Fusion reactions isn’t difficult, it’s containing it that is, and that requires massive amounts of energy, which is why the various forms of large scale fusion reactors have not generated net energy. It’s interesting that they can do a small few fusion reactions at the subatomic level (if that is what they are doing), but I don’t see how they can scale it up with a working fluid with such a low boiling point, and if Deuterated acetone is anything like regular acetone (bet it is) it also has a very low flash point, making it even harder to extract macro levels of energy out of it.

    More importantly the first thing I would like to see is how a collapsing bubble can create temperatures of 10 million C and pressure of 1,000 million atmospheres. That seems a little extraordinary. I’ll grant they are extraordinary bubbles, but I don’t see how that translates into those numbers.

    However, a neutron colliding with an atom (particularly deuterium) could crate those numbers (on a very small scale) and depending on the arrangements of the hydrogen could create small scale fusion, but I don’t see it as self sustaining, remove the neutron source and it will dwindle quickly.

    As an aside, they might be better of using Gasoline, which I believe has a higher hydrogen density (It actually has a higher energy density than pure hydrogen, which is why I like to call my SUV hydrogen powered).

    How you create Deuterated gasoline (or acetone for that matter) I have no idea, but there has to be some form of energy process for that. Gathering deuterium di-oxide is known to require massive amounts of power, and that’s not even making it, just separating it from hydrogen di-oxide, as they are chemically similar.

  5. ET SidViscous
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 1:56 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Dave.

    Yes it can be seperated by distillation, but since Heavy water is present in normal water in concentrations of 1 part per 3200, it requires alot of distillation and pumping, that takes energy, quite a lot of it.

    Just as seperation of U235 fro U238 is a simple process of a centrifuge, or gaseous thermal diffusion, due to small concentration (0.2%) it requires a lot of work (made more difficult by the corrosive, toxic, and radioactive properties of the compaunds that are in the centrifuge), and thus a lot of energy. To make labratory quantities is easy enough, and you can even see them under a microscope. To make usefull quantities requires a very large very expensive plant.

    You can also make U238 with magnetic seperation, but again it has very low yields.

    Yes it’s just distillation, but in comparison while I can do baking of cupcakes in my oven, to provide the cupcakes required for a regional area requires something larger than my kitchen. To seperate Deuturium oxide, in usefull purity, from regular water requires a very large still. Your not goiing to create high purity heavy water in a backyard still, as the Germans leaned in the 1940’s.

    It’s cost is indictive of what is required to seperate it. For instance with Canada’s CANDU Heavy water moderated reacotrs, the cost of the Heavy water alone accounts for 20% of the capital building costs.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girdler_sulfide_process

    “It is a highly energy intensive process.”

  6. bruce
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 2:18 PM | Permalink | Reply

    re #6: MMmmmm!! 1 part in 3200 eh? Not so far different from the 1 part in 2666 that CO2 is present in atmosphere. Perhaps we should look to see if the concentration of heavy water in the oceans is the bad actor. Could it be increasing due to man’s activities – all those nuclear subs for example.

  7. Dave Eaton
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 2:53 PM | Permalink | Reply

    ET
    Oh, you wanted to be practical! No help here, then. I buy all my deuterated solvents from Aldrich. I was being a smartass, if it wasn’t obvious. I think deutero-octane, as you sort of suggested, would very much be a nonstarter because of the energy involved.

    I’m sort of ignoring all the desktop fusion stuff for exactly the reasons laid out in the Nature editorial. It isn’t because I think that it isn’t cool, though. If anything, this sort of stuff gets me too excited, and I think about it rather than doing what I am supposed to be doing. Kind of like climate science- regardless of how well it represents reality, it’s cool, and fiddling around with it has taught me a lot about statistics and principle components etc, and it eats more time than I have to give to it…

  8. ET SidViscous
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 3:23 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Fair enough, and I should have caught the smartass bit. “takes one to know one” and all that.

    I find table top fusion in the realm of extracting Gasoline from BS and all that. YEah you can do it, and if you want to power a digital clock, it might be usefull so long as the clock doesn’t use too much power. I just can’t see how it’s going to scale up. And putting large amounts of flammable liquids under pressure and submiting them to tempratures millions of degrees over their flash point seems to have some inherent issues. In my opinion of course.

  9. Dave Eaton
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 3:37 PM | Permalink | Reply

    On that note, and still widely off topic, I think some of the enzymatic production of ethanol from cellulose looks interesting.

  10. ET SidViscous
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 3:47 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Sure, it could work very well.

    If you think Oil companies are a large powerful part of our Economy, wait till the 3 times larger for same amount of fuel Ethanol conglomerates come on line.

    And for the warmers out there, burning Ethanol does not solve the CO2 issues.

    Not being negative to you Dave, just continuing the smartass theme. ;)

  11. Paul
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 4:14 PM | Permalink | Reply

    RE #10/11:

    For some cool stuff on tabletop fusion, check out the guys at the Fusor site. Philo Farsnworth, of TV invention fame, had something, like the cold fusion guys have something. For the really good stuff, go to their forum. Always something interesting there, too.

  12. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Mar 8, 2006 at 4:20 PM | Permalink | Reply

    OK, let’s wind it up on cold fusion. This isn’t sci.environment. They’re going into the garbage can from now on- sorry about htat.

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