Cold Fusion Culture

The following article is a guest post submitted by Spencer Blohm

Here are your two gigantic overstatements for today: science is highly politicized, and the public is, generally, resistant to change.

Throughout history, there have been provocative ideas from the scientific community which ultimately became ubiquitous. While it’s interesting to think about all of the ideas that have gone on to become pop culture staples (e.g., Einstein’s theory of relativity, the television programs and various catch phrases of Carl Sagan, etc.)  it’s also fascinating to think about all of the ideas which could yield untold advantages for humanity, that have yet to create the sort of buzz in the popular consciousness that they would seem to warrant. For instance, cold fusion (or Low Energy Nuclear Reaction [LENR]) hasn’t yet managed to excite (or even interest) the general public enough to merit more than one, off-hand reference on The Big Bang Theory.

Proponents of LENR tout it as a viable, and ultimately safer alternative to the more conventional, “hot” fusion method. Academic Edmund Storms, who penned the book The Science of Low-Energy Nuclear Reaction, has even gone as far as to say that LENR is the “most important discovery of the last two centuries, with applications to energy production and the understanding of nuclear behavior.”

Why then, if it could yield so much good, does LENR still have this stigma surrounding it, and why isn’t it more of a presence in the collective consciousness, and within pop culture itself?

For a variety of reasons, LENR remains a relatively obscure topic of discussion, not merely among purveyors of pop culture, but also within academic circles. LENR did generate a fair degree of hype when Pons and Fleischmann first went public with their findings in 1989. The story made the cover of several major magazines, including Time and Business Week. LENR quickly faded into obscurity, however, as the scientific community, and the U.S. Department of Energy specifically, voiced skepticism after failing to reproduce Pons and Fleischmann’s results. Since then the topic of cold fusion has generally remained in the periphery of academia, and has remained largely obscure due to the taboo that has grown to surround it in the scientific arena.

However, history has shown that television, films, and other vehicles for popular science fiction, have historically played a major role in informing the general public’s perception of scientific ideas. While cold fusion hasn’t been the topic of any huge films or televisions shows, it has popped up from time to time, serving as a reminder to the American public that the technology hasn’t been forgotten.

The most recent, and possibly most high profile, example of LENR making an appearance in pop culture was in this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness. Granted, the film is set in 2259, but the fact that cold fusion technology is portrayed as having become just another tool for Starfleet to use is noteworthy. For those who have yet to see the film, a “cold fusion”  device plays an incredibly important (although scientifically inaccurate) part in the beginning of the film (spoiler alert!). The film starts off with Kirk and Bones attempting to save the population of the planet Nibiru, who are about to get destroyed by a volcanic eruption. To save this population from the volcano, Spock is lowered into the volcano’s caldera, where he sets off a “cold fusion” bomb which then freezes all of the lava, preventing the eruption. Ok, I realize that’s not how cold fusion works and is a completely inaccurate depiction of cold fusion – but the guy was just lowered into an active volcano by a space ship, so clearly, artistic liberties were taken.

A much more relevant approach to real-life E-cat technology was taken by filmmakers Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross in their documentary The Believers. Brown and Ross told Popcorn and Vodka that they were inspired by the passion of those involved in cold fusion technology, and decided that the story would provide a good basis for a documentary. They had reportedly been “looking for great stories that involve science, scientists, and the intersection of both with American culture. The cold fusion episode was right up our alley. It took science, pop culture, the media, greed, utopian zeal, patents, and dreams, and put them all in a blender on high.”

The Believers premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in October of 2012 and went on to win Best Documentary at the festival. The filmmakers said that audiences were attracted to the fact that “No one has ever looked at science this way. It’s a mystery wrapped in a drama inside a personal story of greed, discovery, hope, politics, money, pop culture, and scandal.” Unfortunately the documentary never found wide theatrical distribution, but you can purchase it on DVD here.

One of the earliest appearances of cold fusion in a popular film, however, was in 1997’s The Saint. In the film, Simon (Val Kilmer) is a professional thief who is hired by a Russian oil and gas oligarch to steal the formula for cold fusion from an American electrochemist so he can use it during the Russian fuel shortage to gain political power. The formula, however, is incomplete when it is delivered to the Russian oligarch and he orders his henchmen to bring him Simon and the American scientist, Emma (Elizabeth Shue). The couple escapes and hatches a plan for Emma to complete the formula so they can give it to the Russian president (who the oligarch is attempting to overthrow) in an attempt to save themselves from the powerful oligarch. Their plan works, and the formula is completed and given to the president. At the end of the film the cold fusion process is a success and the oligarch is arrested. Granted, it’s a typical Hollywood plot that’s wrapped up nicely in a bow, but what the film does seem to take seriously is the idea that cold fusion could be an inexpensive solution to the world’s energy shortages. It is also, arguably, the most accurate depiction of what the real cold fusion process would be like in film or TV so far.

While it would be unfair to place blame for the obscurity of LENR squarely on Hollywood, it is fair to assert that mass media plays a huge role in shaping public opinion, and it also plays a huge role in taking complex (even esoteric) academic concepts, and making them accessible to the general public. A star vehicle or blockbuster film could work wonders in terms of advancing this technology.

But if we can’t rely on Hollywood, perhaps we can rely on the academic community to reinvigorate the public about the potential benefits of LENR research. NASA physicist Joseph Zawodny is one public figure doing his part to advocate for LENR in the public forum. He recently stated that if the scientific community can produce cold fusion at scale, that it “would be the sort of technology that would fuel our future growth and expansion and have the ability to raise the standard of living of the entire world.”

Sound too “pie in the sky” for you? Think about it this way: Vince Gilligan and the rest of the Breaking Bad staff could craft a narrative that artfully reintroduced pioneer physicist Werner Heisenberg, and other principles of chemistry and physics, to the pop cultural collective consciousness, with a starting point as lurid and unpopular as meth production in the American southwest. Surely, there’s a writer out there capable of crafting something which promotes awareness of cold fusion, which could offer a safe and efficient means of generating energy. And hey… Bryan Cranston is probably looking for new work right now…Just sayin.’

Author Bio: Spencer Blohm is a technology, entertainment and pop culture blogger for Follow him on Twitter at @bspencerblohm.