The Streetlight Effect and Cold Fusion

By David J French

Sometimes an iconic article is written that makes a change in how our society views important issues. One possibly iconic article is that published in Discover Magazine in July – August, 2010 by a contributing journalist, David H Freedman. Freedman coined the expression “The Streetlight Effect”. The idea is old but the name is rich with meaning; this concept now has a Wikipedia page.

The article explored how scientists everywhere when they undertake research often start with a focus which is driven by their own comfort and convenience. They acknowledge that there’s a puzzle to be solved and they aspire to make a contribution. They have specialized equipment available in their labs and graduate students who are trained in a specific field. Possibly, they may also have access to funding which is slanted towards a certain type of research. So it’s natural that they make a proposal to use their existing resources to address the specific scientific problem. Can this be wrong?

This is the essence of the “Streetlight Effect”: researchers tend to do the kind of research that’s easy, convenient and accessible. They have an aversion to going where no researcher has gone before if it means going where they must acquire new resources and/or undertake a major learning exercise to equip themselves appropriately. Instead, they pursue the easy path.

How does this relate to the scientific mystery colloquially called “Cold Fusion”? This July will see the 18th annual meeting of Cold Fusion researchers from around the world in Columbia, Missouri, attending ICCF-18. Sponsored by the University of Missouri, ICCF-18 will allow dozens of Cold Fusion researchers over a period of five days to present their findings in this field. The field of Cold Fusion is remarkable for the reality that while the miracle of unexplained excess energy has been demonstrated over and over again, more than 1000 times since 1989, the source of this energy is still not accounted for. Nobody understands clearly what is happening.

Since Fleischmann & Pons made their first ill-fated announcements in March, 1989 at the University of Utah, the field of Cold Fusion, also now called Low Energy Nuclear Reactions – LENR, has been in general disrepute in the broader scientific community. The failure by many major institutions in 1989 – 1990 to replicate the Fleischmann & Pons effect and produce meaningful amounts of unexplained excess heat at significant temperature levels has caused an unfortunate prejudice to persist in the scientific community.

This prejudice was entrenched by the publication of several highly critical books such as “Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion” by Gary Taubes, and “Cold Fusion: The Scientific Fiasco of the Century“ by John R Huizenga. Even though subsequent developments have negated most of the criticisms leveled by critics at the Fleischmann & Pons effect, there is still a general belief in many physics departments, and indeed in government agencies, that Cold Fusion simply is not real.

Well something about it is real. There’s no question that moderate amounts of heat have been generated from sources that cannot be chemical and cannot be attributed to experimental artifacts; heat has persisted long enough that the effect cannot be ignored. But no theory has been presented so far that can conclusively explain the source of this energy.

Now enter the “Streetlight Effect”. What are we going to expect of the experimenters who make presentations at ICCF-18?

Most of them will be reporting on the experimental results that they have achieved. A large number of these results have been will have been carried out in electrolytic cells, in the liquid phase. This is true even though there have been definite demonstrations of the LENR effect in the gas phase, both in the case of Palladium saturated with deuterium as well as nickel saturated with hydrogen. Indeed, even other hydride-forming metals have been shown to demonstrate the unexplained release of excess heat.

Experiments are still being done in the liquid phase even though the gas phase has much greater commercial potential simply because of many of the experimenters have laboratories that are well equipped for electrolysis and the researchers themselves have spent years immersed in this field. But now even the gas phase is finally being explored more extensively. This may open up new opportunities.

These experiments have all been invaluable in order to assemble data on what gives rise to the LENR effect. But the amount of data that has been generated, while almost overwhelming, has not yet lifted the veil on what is actually happening. We have to give credit for all this work that has been done, and indeed it is invaluable in providing a foundation for further thought and analysis. But something more is needed.

Where are the “killer” experiments that will lift the veil and finally provide understanding for what is really going on? Will there be a Milliken attending to describe the measurement of electric charge on oil drops? Or a Rutherford who provides results on alpha particle scattering? Examples of such key experiments in the history of science could be extended indefinitely. But will such a corresponding experiment be proposed at ICCF-18, an experiment that will solve the LENR Mystery? Possibly, but not probably.

We can expect to hear at the conference from researchers who have assiduously been collecting data using the apparatus that they have on hand, attended by their previously recruited graduate students who are focused on their supervisor’s field of expertise and funded by sources who are able to comprehend the proposed research for which they are providing money. Is this the best way to crack the nut that will explain this potentially revolutionary phenomenon?

This work has all made its contribution and more along such lines will still have to be done. It may be that the “Streetlight Effect” is unavoidable. But is it too much to hope that someone, or the consensus of this assembled wisdom, will be able propose an experiment, or series of experiments, which will be so telling that finally a basis will exist to shine light on a robust theory that will explain what is really happening?

ICCF-18 will be a gathering of people knowledgeable in the field. There will be plenty of exchanges of information and insight. Perhaps the “killer” experiment has already been done and may finally see the light of day. But if not, rather than continuing to pursue pet theories, a tremendous opportunity is available for those who know how to do experiments to discuss the key types of tests that should be done. This may, however, require them to depart further away from their streetlights and explore possibilities that will finally bring truth from the darkness. Let us hope this will happen.

David French is a retired patent attorney and the principal and CEO of Second Counsel Services. Second Counsel provides guidance for companies that wish to improve their management of Intellectual Property. For more information visit: www.SecondCounsel.com.

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9 thoughts on “The Streetlight Effect and Cold Fusion”

  1. you find tha same tragedy in Finance and even in Business management.
    People try to optimize too much what they can measure… and they ignore what is too hard to predic or measure…

    in finance they ignore fat tails (huge catastrophe), operational risk (like when the market is illiquid, or down), and correlation risk (when everubody do the same, destroying the marker)… they optimize day to day risk and return, and they (in fact their client) lose all (except their bonus and salaries) when the predictable unpredictable happen (again).

    In IT there is the same problems. There is a tendency in prudent corporation to use and abuse of redundent components (mirrored disk, twin servers…). The probmem is that most problams come from administrator mistakes who coherently duplicate the catastrophe on each node…
    You expect better reliability from redundancy, and all you get is more complexity and more errors.

    in companies management, and even in small business, the executives or boss often try to squeeze visible expense like meal fees, office fountains, pizza for weekend work, primes… the result is they break the trust contact with their employees, and reduce massively their hard to estimate real productivity…

    it is why Nassim Nicholas Taleb promote the principle on “less is more”, the “via negativa”…
    we should have less information, so we stay prudent, using old heuristics, taboo, moral principle, … we should avoid to optimize the easy to compute value, because we may easily worsen a key parameter that is hard to compute…

    for medicine, as said in the article, it can be dramatic. His position is that you should not try to optimize or normalize the body parameters, as long as there is no immediate risk of death… because all is uncertain and you may easily make someone in fair health, get in real sickness. On the opposite when situation is desperate, being prudent is stupid… if you will probably die, being killed by the cure is not very expensive, and the worse that can happen is that you get cured for an unpredictable reason…

  2. AlainCo, good stuff, could the way to bring understanding back, to as you say “less is more” be to start again with a few parameters, just the important one’s.
    Could I suggest that we could nearly always get by with just one Golden rule in science and all areas of life.
    The Truth, and when we are not sure what that Truth is, we do not use “opinion” but work harder, open-mindedly and honestly to discover it to the best of our ability.
    Science and society has made the word Truth almost a swear word, replaced by ridiculous “expert opinion” that is worshiped by many like the false Gods of old.
    In fact there is almost certainly some Truth in God worship, be it only the Fact that people with a belief in a higher power are happier and healthier than non-believers.
    There is no more Truth in scientific “expert opinion” than in any statements delivered by any other religious sect.
    The only law in life should be, search for the Truth and if we don’t know it then admit it and many times even when we think we do, then learn more, more research, more theory, more experimentation.
    Better to say we don’t know, which is the case in all of science beyond the most trivial basics of materialistic knowledge, than to try and make out like childish know it all’s that “opinion” is any substitute for Truth.

  3. I am not all that concerned about how it works. I know that it does work and I want commercialization. So, if I were really rich, I would be helping people trying to commercialize LENR. I suppose that if we really knew how it worked, then we could more easily optimize it and find other uses for it. But the benefits from it’s working are potentially so great that I am willing to wait to learn how it works.

  4. I hope that the players in this field are prepared for fights on many fronts. Many governments and energy brokers are in bed together, and they are not going to just shrug their shoulders and walk away from their meal tickets. There’s too much invested. Abundant, distributed, inexpensive clean energy is one of their worse nightmares. In case nobody has noticed, the US government has been making decisions that tighten control, not loosen it. LENR is a liberating technology, and therefore, it has its natural enemies.

    1. Hello Friend. I have spent a lot of time pointing out the obvious to the DOE. At the time they had no direct link to http://www.science.gov or http://www.scienceaccelerator.gov They now have these links and several others on http://www.energy.gov, that is the DOE site. They are not hiding anything any longter. Google “Eagleworks and NASA”. Search on any of these websites for “Warp Drive”, and you will hear about the Alcubierre Effect.

      Sincerely, Paul

  5. The focus on electrolysis also struck me as being surprising. But what your looking for determines where you look. There are at least two types of LENR research going on. There is an effort to gain a scientificly valid understanding of LENR and also an engineering approach focused on bringing to market products that can be sold. From the viewpoint of producing energy for practical use the gas phase seems much better. It can produce energy at higher temperatures which is both more useful and seems to produce energy at a much higher rate. Does anyone know if there is any research directed at a plasma phase LENR ? Widem Larsen theory advances the idea that LENR reactions are occurring in the Corona of the sun. It would be very ironic if the devices developed to investigate hot fusion could be used to help understand this aspect of LENR. A Corona type device would be very useful in producing high heat levels because it wouldn’t be limited to the melting temperature of any metal or substance.

  6. Well done David. Thank you for bringing the streetlight phenomenon into the light, so to speak.
    A random thought popped into my head while reading your piece.
    “I wonder if our old friend Chaos has anything to do with this?”
    It has his fingerprints all over it. Sometimes the experiment produces heat, sometimes not. This bears the hallmarks of Chaos.
    Science demands repeatability, It assumes therefore that all physical phenomena are linear. That might be where the error of assumption lies.
    So how to tame Chaos?
    The parameters have to be moved away from the chaotic transition zone towards the stability offered around a Strange Attractor. But how does one do that when we don’t know where the Attractor is?
    More empirical work.
    How about a Meta-Analysis of all the known positive results to see if a trend emerges that shows the way?
    This is way beyond my pay scale.

    1. Thank you Arthur. I agree: the enemy is chaos. A characteristic of the “killer” experiment will be simplification. Deep thought is required to design a test which will highlight the impact of critical parameters. That is the challenge.

  7. The ICCF begins with:
    Keynote Speakers
    Dr. David Kidwell: Low Energy Nuclear Reaction Research at the Naval Research Laboratory
    Dr. James Truchard: The Role of National Instruments in the Global Environment
    Each of these speakers could share their knowledge of Global Energy Corporation. The patent for a cold fusion reactor that transmutes spent fuel rods should be the highlight of the show.
    They could have presented it a year ago or even two years ago… if allowed to. Will Dr. Kidwell be candid?
    Certainly the best equipped laboratories engineering advanced LENR devices are not found under the streetlight. Now that the NASA patent and the Navy patent can be studied… researchers are much better informed as to critical parameters for the low energy nuclear reactive environment.
    Working in the dark and not being resigned to the streetlight effect is nearly impossible if you just can’t seem to find the laboratory or gain entrance.
    Finally the folks with the inside knowledge are sharing it with us.

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