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Friday, 27 March 2009

Lessons from cold fusion's 20th birthday

It is surely no coincidence that yet another group of researchers is reporting signs of "cold fusion" 20 years after the first storm in a test tube. The fact that the subject is in the news again adds extra interest to the account of how the journalist who first broke the story came to do so.

In a piece on the FT's science blob, A sad anniversary for cold fusion, Clive Cookson, the paper's science editor, tells how the story landed in his lap.

He was visiting his father who, like Martin Fleischmann, one the duo that "invented" cold fusion, was a chemistry professor at Southampton University. "I happened to answer the phone before dinner," says Clive. Fleischmann was on the other end. "He told me at once that he was in America, and he did not want to talk to my father but to me – in confidence."

Fleischmann then filled Clive in on the story and asked for advice on how to deal with the media. Clive cautioned Fleischmann against a press conference that the University of Utah wanted to hold to tell the world about the breakthrough. "I advised him to resist the university’s pressure to hold a press conference, if he possibly could – while being aware that such sensational news might leak out."

The university ignored this. So Fleischmann offered Clive enough details to write a piece.

At first the idea was for the FT to run something after the press conference. It was only later that it occured to Clive "that there wouldn’t be an FT on Friday. Unlike American papers – or indeed most British papers - we never publish on Good Friday."

He persuaded Fleischmann to let the FT run ahead of the pack on the grounds that "cool, calm coverage in the FT would help to set the tone for the press conference later that day". The rest is history.

Clive offers some interesting lessons from the saga. One might upset scientists greatly.

"Although everyone agrees that it really is best for research not to be released in the mass media before it has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, the media will have no compunction about reporting sensational findings that have not been peer reviewed, so long as the scientists in question come from reputable institutions and have respectable research backgrounds, as Professors Fleischmann and Pons did."
Journalists will see this as blindingly obvious. It is not our job to peer review science.