The Believers – the Movie

A local Association devoted to Product Management who is considering showing the the above film at their final monthly meeting in June asked me if it would be appropriate material within their theme of supporting the cause of Product Management. Along with providing a private showing of the film to the Board of Directors, I also prepared the following Synopsis of the movie for possible distribution to members.



Released in October, 2012 The Believers is a documentary that tracks the dark side of the March 1989 announcement at the University of Utah that two respected chemists had solved the world’s energy problems. They had discovered “Cold Fusion”. Within days Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons were on the covers of numerous magazines worldwide. But three short months later their science has been discredited and their reputations ruined. The established community of physicists refuse to accept the alleged experimental results. Retreating to France the two pioneers pursue their researches for another five years before retiring into twilight. Meanwhile “Cold Fusion” has become synonymous with “pathological science” within the general scientific community.

There could not be a better modern example of a combination of hubris and bad public relations for a product launch. Understanding what went wrong makes this story worthy to be the central focus of courses in marketing, or more precisely bad marketing, for years to come.

Meanwhile, twenty-three years later, laboring under the disdain of their peers, a small group of faithful scientists still persist in trying to resolve the un-answered Mystery of where the incontrovertible unexplained heat of the Fleischmann & Pons Effect comes from. Once solved, this scientific breakthrough may yet become the salvation of civilization providing an unending supply of low-cost energy.

The movie is not, however, so much about the science as it is about the tragedy of the personal lives of the two original discoverers. It is also about the tragedy of the rejection by established institutions of the opportunity to pursue a discovery of unparalleled importance. This assumes that its riddles can be solved and the science applied to produce its potentially vast technological rewards. But the Believers themselves are not organized. Without the presence of overseeing management and meaningful financial resources, they are all struggling with their individual theories and personal myopic experiments leaving little hope that a breakthrough is imminent.

No one can leave the theater without asking themselves: “How could this have happened?”

The movie, a documentary, is definitely focused on the tragic impact of the unfolding scenario on the lives of the two original scientists. In fact, the movie is rather dark. Martin Fleischmann is shown in his declining years suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He is also caught in moments of reflection that are quite poignant. This is particularly true when he ponders how to answer the question: “What happened between you and Stanley Pons?” He never does answer that question properly, but the look in his eyes as he stares off into the distance searching back in his memory is telling. We see the panorama of opportunities lost and dreams dashed. In Martin’s stare we can imagine the closeness that must once have existed between these two collaborators, and the gulf that now separates them.

Fleischmann until his death in August 2012 was living in England and Pons is presently, 2013, living in the South of France. In one short scene while being interviewed with his wife, Pons seriously contemplates giving-up his American citizenship.

But the movie is not just about these two individuals. It is also about the tragedy of the lost opportunity to resolve the challenge of understanding the “Fleischmann & Pons effect”. And it is indeed remarkable that in our present times with all the tools and acquired knowledge available, that those still researching in the Cold Fusion field have not determined how to reliably produce heat at a level that will boil a cup of coffee.

No doubt the scientists assembling for the next annual world conference for the Cold Fusion community, ICCF-18 to be held in July, 2013 on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbus Missouri, will wince at the description that they are all “struggling with their individual theories and personal myopic experiments”. Unfortunately, I cannot help but lean towards that colorful image in my personal struggle to answer the question: “How could this have happened?” Why has there been no breakthrough even after 24 years?

It may well be that the puzzle is indeed complex. But there is a vast amount of data available for those who wish to accept a challenge. Reported experiments in the field showing the generation of unexplained excess heat must by now have exceeded the millennium level. A half a dozen potentially practical theories already exist and a dozen more less- credible concepts regularly float up into the air. But surely there’s enough information assembled now for some genius to hit upon the solution. What is the source of the excess energy – heat – that flows from Cold Fusion experiments??

There is an analogy in history. In 1898 Pierre Curie and his wife isolated for the first time a quantity of Radium. To their great surprise, 1 gram of radium produced heat apparently endlessly! (Ra226 half-life: 1601 years; 1000 joules per gram per year when pure.) It was not, however, until 1938-39 when Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew exiled to Sweden by Nazi politics, solved the source of the heat based experimental results for uranium reported to her by her former associate, Otto Hahn. She identified the source of this heat as: Nuclear Fission and the mass difference of the nuclei. The elapsed time was 40 years. But that was in the first half of the 20th century. Surely in the last and first decades spanning the 20th and 21st century a similar unexplained source of energy, albeit intermittent and unreliable, should have been explained by now.

The movie The Believers is not just about Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. It’s a story about the failure of the scientific community to resolve the puzzle that these two electro-chemists presented to the world. The movie depicts the toxic condemnations that descended on the heads of these two gentlemen, primarily because many laboratories could not duplicate their results, and additionally because the theory that nuclear fusion was the source of the energy was incompatible with nuclear fusion as understood by the physicists. The physicists believed that if fusion were occurring then there had to be an associated emission of high-energy particles. In the case of Cold Fusion, there was no substantial demonstration of energetic particle emissions associated with the process. The fact that there was an unexplained supply of heat, a phenomenon that would otherwise violate one of the most fundamental laws of thermodynamics, the Conservation of Energy, was simply ignored. This is a travesty of the highest order.

The movie ends with a tone of despair expressed by one of the eminent theoreticians laboring in the field: Dr. Peter Hagelstein of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Peter, with the demeanor of a defeated man but probably intending ironic humor, speculates that when the present generation of Believers has passed on (most of them are elderly having adopted this as their career back in 1989-1990), the field will fall into neglect only to be discovered at some future date by scientific archaeologists. These are the words of a man holding tenure at MIT who nevertheless has no grants to spend and no students to do experiments. That is the burden that these Believers labor under.

While these observations are in keeping with the tone of the movie, exploring a theme which is dark and depressing, there is hope. So many favorable experimental results have now accumulated that a breakthrough in theoretical understanding in this field must occur in the near future. At least that will be the hope of all those attending ICCF-18 this coming July. In expressing such expectations and hopes myself, I have disclosed my own membership in a group that I’m sure one day will be honored for their loyalty to the cause, – The Believers.

17 Replies to “The Believers – the Movie”

  1. Thanks for that critic.

    It is true that cold fusion story is a tragedy… a greek tragedy until now…

    Some expect the happy end, and I agree that it will be industrial, but the real inventors, the victim of mainstream violence will be forgotten.

    that is the theory that Nassim Nicholas Taleb based on history, I mean the real not the remanufactured history.

    1. Standard Oil – By Pablo Neruda (1940)

      A classic Neruda poem with tragic relevance to today

      When the drill bored down toward the stony fissures
      and plunged its implacable intestine
      into the subterranean estates,
      and dead years, eyes of the ages,
      imprisoned plants’ roots
      and scaly systems
      became strata of water,
      fire shot up through the tubes
      transformed into cold liquid,
      in the customs house of the heights,
      issuing from its world of sinister depth,
      it encountered a pale engineer
      and a title deed.

      However entangled the petroleum’s arteries may be,
      however the layers may change their silent site
      and move their sovereignty amid the earth’s bowels,
      when the fountain gushes its paraffin foliage,
      Standard Oil arrived beforehand
      with its checks and its guns,
      with its governments and its prisoners.

      Their obese emperors from New York
      are suave smiling assassins
      who buy silk, nylon, cigars
      petty tyrants and dictators.

      They buy countries, people, seas, police, county councils,
      distant regions where the poor hoard their corn
      like misers their gold:
      Standard Oil awakens them,
      clothes them in uniforms, designates
      which brother is the enemy.
      the Paraguayan fights its war,
      and the Bolivian wastes away
      in the jungle with its machine gun.

      A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum,
      a million-acre mortgage,
      a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified,
      a new prison camp for subversives,
      in Patagonia, a betrayal, scattered shots
      beneath a petroliferous moon,
      a subtle change of ministers
      in the capital, a whisper
      like an oil tide,
      and zap, you’ll see
      how Standard Oil’s letters shine above the clouds,
      above the seas, in your home,
      illuminating their dominions.

      By Pablo Neruda (1940); translated from Spanish by Jack Schmitt and recited by Allen Dwight Callahan. A classic Neruda poem with tragic relevance to today, 73 years later.

  2. Right on, thank you O my Believer!

    Hey that “Product Management” group is so intriguing me.
    I want to start one of my own!

  3. This is depressing. This part is infuriating:

    “Released in October, 2012 The Believers is a documentary that tracks the dark side of the March 1989 announcement at the University of Utah that two respected chemists had solved the world’s energy problems. . . .

    There could not be a better modern example of a combination of hubris and bad public relations for a product launch. Understanding what went wrong makes this story worthy to be the central focus of courses in marketing, or more precisely bad marketing, for years to come. . . .”

    In other words, the movie (or this reviewer) blames the outcome on the press conference. This is such tired nonsense! I could not disagree more.

    1. The press conference was fully professional. Most discoveries of this nature at universities are presented this way.

    2. The claims presented at the conference were understated, not exaggerated.

    3. Nearly every claim was soon replicated and confirmed.

    4. A peer-reviewed paper was published that day. That is why they held the press conference.

    5. In plasma fusion they often hold press conference to announce a success just after a test run, and months or years before they publish a paper! In other words, the people who accuse F&P of jumping the gun are the ones who routinely do this.

    6. In cancer research and other fields they routinely announce inflated results that are never replicated or confirmed.

    In any case, the press conference was not the cause of the opposition to cold fusion. That’s preposterous The opposition is from willfully ignorant arrogant half-wits, and people in the plasma fusion program protecting their turf and their funding.

    1. Jed, I, David French am the reviewer who prepared the Synopsis above. I am very glad to have you publish your observations and corrections. My impression respecting the difficulties that arose out of the press conference and follow-on disclosures and publications in 1989 is that a large number of institutions were unable to duplicate the unexplained excess energy effect at a significant level. Some did, others, many others, did not.

      As I understood from the movie and as was referenced by the graduate student involved at the time as a lab assistant, that Fleischmann & Pons were very open in explaining their experiment on the first day or two of the demonstration. But then they were told by the University of Utah Patent Department not to give away details on how to make the experiment work. I believe Martin Fleischmann makes a statement to this effect during the film. This was very unfortunate as it may have contributed to the many failures by others to duplicate their results.

      Perhaps the eventual published papers provided missing data and guidance. It is also apparent that reproducibility is not one of the strengths of the science, at least not yet. It is simply a fact that the movie gives the impression that the two scientists did not handle their release of their discoveries in the best possible manner. The movie shows how their reported discovery was condemned by others as: “Not Proven”. Your point is that this condemnation was unjustified.

      I do not know what actually occurred and I cannot deny that your observations above are inaccurate. In fact I accept them, subject to the qualification that there is more to be said. The Synopsus that I prepared and quoted reproduces the impression that the film creates. It does so from the viewpoint of a lesson to be learned by product managers who wish to introduce a new product into the marketplace. The inventors were addressing an audience of potential investors whom they hoped would support further research. Having the scientific community endorse the results of their research was an important component of that objective. In that respect a failure occurred.

      Your observation appears to be that the failure by others to duplicate the reproduction of unexplained excess energy is no fault of Fleischmann & Pons. Your view is that: “The opposition is from willfully ignorant arrogant half-wits, and people in the plasma fusion program protecting their turf and their funding.”

      You are the historian expert on this subject, without doubt. I welcome and thank you for your comments. That is how better understandings of reality are developed.

      I had thought this film might be shown at ICCF-18. That does not appear likely to occur. I hope its non-presentation will not be due to an aversion to a “take” on events, supported by generous archived video, simply on the basis that the impression or message is not sufficiently focused on the unjustified rejection of the work of Fleischmann Pons by the scientific community at large and the failure of the film to more favorably support Cold Fusion science and its more recent advances.

      1. As Ed Storms says, many mainstream scientists tried to replicate cold fusion and had a bad experience. There was lot to dislike about it in 1989. They had legitimate gripes. Heck, there still is a lot to dislike.

        The point I was trying to make is that the problems were not caused by the press conference. People say they were, but they are making excuses. They are using the press conference as a smoke screen, or as an excuse to avoid reading the papers. Even if you think the press conference was a bad idea, it wasn’t all that bad and it wasn’t unprecedented.

        Incidentally, soon after the press conference, Martin Fleischmann predicted that he and Pons would soon be thrown out of academia in disgrace. (See Beaudette’s book.) He was no fool. He knew history. I am 100% confident that they would have been attacked and disgraced with or without a press conference. If they had not published a paper, or if Fleischmann had not been famous already, they would have been ignored.

        Peter Hagelstein recently described the dynamics of the witch hunt against cold fusion:

        There may be other aspects of this video that I would agree with. I guess I will see it when I get a chance. I only wanted to address the point about the conference.

        I assume it is the movie producer’s point of view that the press conference caused extensive damage, so this is no criticism of your review.

        1. Thank you for your further comment, Jed. It throws additional light on what really happened.

          I have read your link to Peter Hagelstein’s article on the behavior of the scientific community and it does reflect on the atmosphere of oppression that has unjustifiably been laid on the ColdFusion community over the last 24 years. On further reflection, I think that one of the reasons for my making the posting with the tone and approach that I did was my frustration that the ColdFusion community has not advanced more over the past two decades. Is that due to the difficulty of the science or the obtuseness of those involved in the pursuit? I know that a lot of people are trying very hard but what may be lacking is a central coordinating authority, or a Messiah who can pull together the message.

          I look forward to ICCF-18 as providing real breakthroughs in understanding this remarkable scientific and sociological challenge that has so much promise and has received so much neglect from the general scientific community, industry and government.

  4. Three points:

    Your historical analogy is not accurate. The energy released by Ra-226 is not fission; it’s alpha decay. And the nature of alpha particles was identified in 1907 by Rutherford. The source of energy as the mass difference of the nuclei was suggested by Planck soon after Einstein’s relativity in 1905, although it could not be confirmed experimentally until the discovery of the neutron in 1932. (See mass-energy equivalence in wikipedia)

    The discovery of fission in heavy elements (like uranium) in 1938 involved observations of fission fragments (like barium) in uranium, particularly after neutron bombardment. This discovery was quite independent of the discovery of alpha decay in radium, except that they both involve nuclear binding. With the observation of neutrons from fission, Szilard immediately understood the potential for a chain reaction, and within 4 years, the first fission reactor was built, and shortly after that they would need the Columbia river to provide cooling. It’s really not analogous to cold fusion at all.

    Also, an “unexplained supply of heat” does not otherwise (presumably other than nuclear) violate conservation of energy, or cavemen would have been in violation when they harnessed fire centuries before Lavoisier hit upon the first approximation of the true nature of combustion.

    Those who ignored the phenomenon (after paying a lot of attention to it), regarded the claims of (not the fact of) unexplained heat as either experimental error, or chemical in origin, because of its failure to manifest in an unequivocal way, and the absence of nuclear products, and therefore not particularly interesting. This is ordinary scientific judgement, and not a “travesty” of any order. Scientists with differing judgement were free to pursue their ideas, and many did, some with substantial funding. It has always been thus.

    I don’t know of an objective metric that would suggest an imminent theoretical breakthrough in the field. Certainly going by publications in the refereed literature, it seems far less imminent now than ever. There have been only a few refereed publications in the mainstream literature on excess heat in the last decade, and those claim only about a watt or so of excess power. There has been an increase in the number of companies promising commercial products and looking for investment, many of them started by individuals without what might be considered relevant experience and background. But I don’t think that portends a theoretical breakthrough.

  5. One more thing. You write: “In 1898 Pierre Curie and his wife isolated for the first time a quantity of Radium. ”

    This is a sexist representation of the event. It was Marie’s initiative, her husband abandoning his own research in crystals to join her research in radioactivity in 1898. Marie Curie *alone* won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1911 for the discovery of radium and polonium. They shared the Nobel prize in physics in 1903, along with Becquerel, for work in radioactivity.

    1. Your comments, Joshua, to contribute further information are most welcome.

      I believe that Pierre Curie could not have shared the 1911 Nobel Prize respecting the discovery of Radium and Polonium because the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously. He had died by then. I do not think, therefore, that he was excluded intentionally.

      1. That’s true. I looked up the date of Pierre’s death after I posted that.

        Nevertheless, most accounts of the story that I’ve read give Marie Curie first credit as having taken the initiative in research in radioactivity, so referring to the researchers as “Pierre and his wife” does her a disservice, in my opinion.

  6. Great synopsis, thanks Ruby. Is there any way of watching The Believers through the web or can it be purchased?

    1. I suggest that you check with 137 Films: They say they are “working on the DVD”.

      Also, if you like the posting, check out in the Comments the thread started by Jed Rothwell.

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