Physics Catches Up
A Few Microseconds Ago,
At least in the way the 13+ billion year old universe reckons history, I came up with a hypothesis, another way of saying "guess," as to what was going on with "cold fusion." In human time scales, it was almost a decade ago that I wrote a blogitem called Cold Fusion Insanity. In it I speculated that the reason scientists (or as some considered them, charlatans,) found that the way cold fusion "worked" had to do with another mysterious physical phenomenon, dark matter. This was a longish blogitem, and if you find this subject interesting it might be worth reading as I'm only rehashing a very broad outline here.
When I propose an outlandish hypothesis, I like to think of it in terms of risk/reward ratio. A simple example: The various state lotteries tend to return less than fifty cents on the dollar, and then tax any significant winnings. Likewise, despite fairly frequent trips to "Vegas" for trade shows, I pass by the casinos with equanimity. Why play with a known house advantage?
My hypotheses, outlandish or otherwise, don't come with known odds. I can devote, say, $1000 to doing a bit of research or an experiment. If that kilobuck leads to a cold fusion breakthrough, it would be worth billions or even trillions of dollars. The odds of success don't have to be very good to make that bet. Having no way to quantify those odds, I decided to attempt to prove it. I asked an engineering professor friend if he would nominate one of his students who might be interested in an internship to research my (outlandish) hypothesis. Shortly thereafter, I had a young, dedicated, soon-to-be engineer learning the vicissitudes of computer control of power supplies, voltmeters, data collection, and the care and feeding of science bottles.
The Hypothesis and the Experiment
I speculated that the reason cold fusion seems to "work" sometimes and not others is that the fusion reaction, if that's what it is, is mediated by the presence of dark matter. I made it clear in the blog I referenced that I have absolutely no reason to either believe that cold fusion has anything to do with dark matter, or that dark matter is something that is only present occasionally. In other words, a total shot in the dark. The only good news is that I devised an experimental test that was inexpensive and potentially dispositive.
One of the flaws of the initial, breathlessly reported but inconclusive experiments with cold fusion was the lack of "controls." I felt that to be certain that the effect is real, you would need to set up two experiments, one involving ordinary water, the other heavy water, under the same conditions. Then, to give my hypothesis a proper test, you would have to set up that dual experiment twice as well. If the cell with heavy water showed signs of energy production and the light water cell didn't, that would be a good indication. If the second, nearby experiment had the same results at the same time, that would almost be proof that something unseen and undetected, perhaps dark matter itself, was an agent in the experiment's success.
A Few Palladium Coins Later
Not to mention $100 worth of heavy water. My intern, surrounded by power supplies, computers, chemicals, and, of course, note-taking devices, got the experiments set up. Unfortunately, due to his schedule, there were only a few days available to run the experiments, and to look for anomalous heat production. And no, you didn't miss the breakthrough announcement that cold fusion had been explained and harnessed. Unsurprisingly, the experimental results were negative.
Does this mean that the experiment was a failure and my hypothesis is incorrect? Hardly! The experiment was successful in that a budding engineer/physicist learned some useful techniques. The hypothesis lingers and, as I will explain in a moment, even becomes slightly less preposterous due to some recent cosmological revelations.
I feel better now. I've been reading that negative results should be reported as part of the process and progress of Science. I've just done my part.
The Dark Matter Premise
Again, as explained (with bullet points, yet!) in my 2009 blog, nobody knows anything about dark matter. Almost a decade later, and very surprisingly, that remains almost true. But there is a glimmer of understanding about one aspect of this mysterious subject. It DOES seem to "clump," as I suggested it might, if you take the word "clump" in its most general sense. Science News printed this article headed Clumps of dark matter could be lurking undetected in our galaxy.
So, at the very most, and controversially at that, the RIKLblog scooped the astrophysics community. Who knows? Perhaps decades from now my hypothesis will be proved.
OG or Og
The recently discovered element oganesson is a noble gas. Or would be if there were enough atoms of it to form a gas. I'm a bit disappointed by the name. Unlike argon, neon, krypton, xenon and radon it's named after a scientist instead of garnering a fanciful moniker like its brother elements. On the other hand, I like the symbol, representing as it does the moniker of my late friend and partner, Orville Greene, always The OG to my circle of his associates.
As interesting as is the story of the discovery of oganesson the element, my discovery of it came from the noble gas crowd who writes the Jeopardy questions. It is the one column of the periodic table that comes up the most, and I almost always "run the category." I didn't realize it had received its official IUPAC name until it came up on the show. I need to pay better attention to the literature.
Enough Physics For Now
Next blog, or at least Soon: Psychology.