Threshold Phenomena

Threshold Phenomena

A threshold phenomenon is one that is just barely detectable, that is at the limit of vision or hearing or any other sense. Nothing the experimenter can do will make the effect larger. It is likely that not everyone will be able to experience the phenomenon.


    Professors Scalise and Cotton, assisted by a student, provided an enactment (crude at best) of the N-Ray experiments of Rene Blondlot. One century ago, in 1903, Blondlot was convinced that he had found a new type of radiation - N-Rays (named for the French city of Nancy). Read the following sites for good descriptions of the whole affair. Things like this have been referred to as "pathological science." The person is not committing fraud - that implies deliberate fakery. Rather, they have convinced themselves that they are seeing something that is not really there. Something important has been discovered, and the investigator applies all efforts to confirming it. The difficulty arises because disconfirming experiments (that would show that nothing was there) are NOT performed.

    Wood's removal of the aluminum prism WITHOUT Blondlot's knowledge was a very simple disconfirming experiment. When Blondlot saw N-Rays with the prism gone, Wood knew that N-Rays were not real. It was a case of self-delusion, not fraud.

    Experimental protocols could have helped avoid the problem

    • Repeatability - If other scientists repeat the experiment but cannot reproduce the results, those results are suspect.
    • Randomization - The order of various trials should not be predictable.
    • Blinding - The tests should be at least single-blind. This works to eliminate experimental bias. In the N-Ray case, this could have been done by having several different observers look for the rays, while randomly having the aluminum either in place or removed. No observer would know whether the prism was in place or not. In double-blind trials, neither the person conducting the test nor the person on whom the test is conducted knows what the result should be.
    • Instrumentation - The human eye is a lousy detector, subject to psychological influence either consciously or inadvertently. An inanimate detector can quantify a measurement without the need for subjective interpretation.


    The following excerpt is from On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, 2nd edition, a report by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, part of the National Research Council, published by National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.,in 1995.


    The case of polywater demonstrates how the desire to believe in a new phenomenon can sometimes overpower the demand for solid, well-controlled evidence. In 1966 the Soviet scientist Boris Valdimirovich Derjaguin lectured in England on a new form of water that he claimed had been discovered by another Soviet scientist, N. N. Fedyakin. Formed by heating water and letting it condense in quartz capillaries, this "anomalous water," as it was originally called, had a density higher than normal water, a viscosity 15 times that of normal water, a boiling point higher than 100 degrees Centigrade, and a freezing point lower than zero degrees.

    Over the next several years, hundreds of papers appeared in the scientific literature describing the properties of what soon came to be known as polywater. Theorists developed models, supported by some experimental measurements, in which strong hydrogen bonds were causing water to polymerize. Some even warned that if polywater escaped from the laboratory, it could autocatalytically polymerize all of the world's water.

    Then the case for polywater began to crumble. Because polywater could only be formed in minuscule capillaries, very little was available for analysis. When small samples were analyzed, polywater proved to be contaminated with a variety of other substances, from silicon to phospholipids. Electron microscopy revealed that polywater actually consisted of finely divided particulate matter suspended in ordinary water.

    Gradually, the scientists who had described the properties of polywater admitted that it did not exist. They had been misled by poorly controlled experiments and problems with experimental procedures. As the problems were resolved and experiments gained better controls, evidence for the existence of polywater disappeared.

Canals on Mars

    Starting in the 19th century, a number of telescopic observers saw and drew features on Mars known as canals. Probably the best-known was Giovanni Schiaparelli in Italy. He drew Mars maps that included a large number of apparently linear features connecting some of the larger markings on the surface. He called them "canali", which is a perfectly good Italian word for "channels." Problems occurred when American observers began studying the canali, and mistranslated the name by calling the features "canals." There is an obvious difference between canals and channels. Rivers make channels, while people dig canals.

      Professor Scalise adds another note about translation. Many people believe that Michelangelo Buonarotti lay on his back on the scaffolding while painting the magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That appears to have been the usual way of doing it. Michelangelo, on the other hand, worked standing up with his head tilted back, looking up. The Italian word "resupinus" means that, not lying down. Michelangelo even wrote a sonnet about the miseries of working in this position. Always go back to the original sources of information if possible.

      Don't believe us? Good! You're getting skeptical. But this time we really are telling you the truth.

    Percival Lowell was convinced that Mars had Martians that dug the canals. He was wealthy enough to establish Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona (Lowell Observatory is still operating) to study the civilization on Mars. He was seeing the linear features that Schiaparelli saw, but was interpreting them as waterways made by Martians.

    There is a difference between "observation" and "interpretation." Observations of the Martian surface should describe "linear features", "faint stripes", or something of that like. If you say that those features are canals dug by Martians, you are interpreting the features, saying what you think they are rather than describing their appearance.

    Webcam images of Mars also show channels. See the March 2004 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

The Maunder-Pickering Experiments

    The following experiment was performed by Edward Maunder (England) and W.H. Pickering (USA). It provides a plausible explanation for the "Canals of Mars", which Mariner 9 (1971) showed conclusively do not exist. To reproduce the experiment, all you need is a sheet of white (copy paper will be fine) and a black ink pen with a very fine point.

    1. Make one dot as small as you can toward the top of the sheet of paper. This is going to be a VERY small dot, less than 1 millimeter in size.

    2. Down the page, make a ragged line of dots the same size as the single one. leave two to three dot-sized spaces between the dots. Make the line at least 1 inch long, but preferably longer.

    3. Set the sheet up so you can view it from a distance; maybe tape it to a wall. Be sure it is not in direct sunlight.

    4. Simply back away from the paper and watch what happens to the single dot and the line of dots. The single dot will finally disappear, and at that point the string of disconnected dots will look line a faint line. A canal?

    Try it! It's really amazing.

Venus Lines Illusion

    Percival Lowell also drew a network of lines on Venus. In doing this, he had a habit of stopping his large telescope down to a small aperture. He did this because Venus is so bright that it is hard (read nearly impossible) to study visually with a large telescope. Lowell reduced the light by stopping down the telescope instead of using a filter.

    With the telescope stopped down and a high magnification in use, the light beam exiting the eyepiece gets very small, 1 mm or less. This produces the effect of making the retinal veins in the eye visible! It was figured out only recently that Lowell's drawings of lines on Venus were almost certainly drawings of the veins in his own eye!

    Lowell's map of Venus (left) and photo of human retina (right)

Cold Fusion

Voodoo Science by Dr. Robert Park,
The Undergrowth of Science by Professor Walter Gratzer,
Yes, We Have No Neutrons by A.K. Dewdney,
Bad Science by Gary Taubes,
Too Hot to Handle by Frank Close,
The Scientific Fiasco of the Century by John Huizenga.

  • What is fusion?
  • What is hot fusion?
  • What is cold fusion?
  • Who?
    • Dr. Martin Fleischmann, member of the Britsh Royal Society
    • Dr. Stanley Pons, full Professor of Chemistry
  • Where? University of Utah, Salt Lake City
  • When? 23 March 1989

This is an example of, at least, science done badly. Pons and Fleischman announced their "discovery" in 1989. Both were reputable scientists with numerous publications. They discovered, or at least thought that they had discovered, a phenomenon in which heavy hydrogen (deuterium) could be made to undergo a fusion reaction at room temperature. This was done in an electrochemical cell by passing an electric current through a solution of LiOD using cathodes of palladium. If true, it would be one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century.

Professor Scalise outlined the normal procedures for handling such a discovery. The scientist asks colleagues in the same institution to come have a look and critique the experiment. Some experiments that might disprove the result might be done as a sanity check. Then internal seminars might be held to present the result to more colleagues. Seminars at other institutions follow, with more discussion and critique. At the end of this, a formal paper is written and submitted to the appropriate peer-reviewed journal. Here, referees read the paper anonymously and critique it thoroughly. Changes may be recommended. If the paper is accepted as good science, it will get in line for publication. The paper will detail all assumptions and will contain detailed descriptions of the discovery, the appropriate experiments, and enough information for another researcher to reproduce the work.

Pons, Fleischman, and the University of Utah bypassed all of this. They went to the Patent Office and to the press, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times of London, two publications not usually known for their science content. Big headlines resulted. If this were real, the patents could be worth millions. In doing this they bypassed all of the normal steps. No critiques were done. There were no sanity tests or control experiments. They did not release any details about how the process worked. This was not normal scientific procedure.

Pons and Fleischmann did not perform the DISCONFIRMING experiment using ordinary light water, instead of heavy water containing deuterium, before going public. They had been working for five years and never thought to try this. Physicist Harold Furth asked Pons about this during the American Chemical Society meeting in Dallas. Pons agreed it would be a good idea, went back to try it, and reported, "We did not get the baseline we expected." Translation: ordinary water produced the SAME effect, but it could not have been fusion because light water will not fuse to helium.

A group at Yale wanted to try replicating the result, but the Utah group was not releasing any details. A news photo of Pons and Fleischman was available, and in it Pons was holding the electrochemical cell. The Yale group, using Pons' hand as a size reference, worked out the scale and built a cell from the photo. They set it up with palladium cathodes and tried it. Nothing happened. They reported their negative result, and then some details came dribbling out of Utah. You had to preload the cathode with the deuterium. So the Yale group did that. Still no result. Others tried to replicate the experiment. Most reported failure. The widespread failure to reproduce the "cold fusion" led to the discrediting of Pons and Fleischman and embarrassment for the University of Utah.

That was in 1989 and 1990, but the story doesn't end there. Interestingly, cold fusion is not dead, like N-Rays. There are still people working on it; some are claiming real results. The most commonly reported effect is an unexplained episode of excess heat output from the cell. This means that the heat coming out exceeds the electrical energy going in. It is, however, very difficult to do, and the effect is sporadic and unpredictable. No one seems to know exactly what is going on. But no neutrons are being produced, and with no neutrons it isn't fusion.

Two companies (Blacklight Power and Clean Energy) have patents on processes in this area. They are working like beavers, but no products are on the market. No one has found a reliable recipe for producing the effect. There seems to be just enough going on to keep a few people working on it. Meetings on the subject are held regularly.

It seems that the Department of Energy is going to put some money into an effort finally to answer this one. It won't die. Several experimenters seem to be able to repeat the excess heat production and have found the experimental conditions required. This is as of Summer 2004.

What are we to make of this? Mainstream physics says that such fusion is not possible and that no evidence of it has been found. Those who are working on it say there is something happening. It seems prudent for us to conclude that the jury is still out on this one. If such an effect is actually real, someone will someday get it right and figure it out. That would be an extremely significant discovery. If, on the other hand, it putters along like this for years (19 years already with no results), there is likely nothing there. All we can do is wait. Maybe the DOE funding will bring forth an answer.

In the context of our class, what do we have here? A hoax? Probably not. Hoax implies deliberate deception. Threshold phenomenon? They were using instruments to record their data. Scientific error? Seems most likely. They did not use the right instruments to confirm fusion. They did not do control experiments. Their controls were poor. They were electrochemists working in physics, which meant they were working out of their area of expertise. All this combined to produce a very embarrassing episode.

Note Well: The name "Cold Fusion" has changed.

There was so much controversy and scandal associated with "Cold Fusion" that its proponents now refer to it as "Low Energy Nuclear Reactions". This Orwellian name change does not alter the physics involved.


Note that the issuance of a patent for some device or process does not give you any assurance that the thing will work. Patents have been granted for some really ridiculous things.

We discussed the patent process. The disclosures in a patent application are supposed to describe the invention thoroughly that anyone having "ordinary skill in the art" can duplicate it. In the case of cold fusion, that doesn't mean that YOU could do it, but rather that a scientist skilled and knowledgeable in that field could do it.

We relate the case of a Patterson Cell, which is a patented cell for producing cold fusion. Working from the patent, the investigators tried to duplicate the result, with no success. Maybe the thing doesn't work at all (very likely), or maybe the patent disclosures were not adequate. Who knows?

Bubble Fusion

Nuclear Engineering Professor Rusi Taleyarkhan of Purdue University, who led the research in question at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was co-author of a 2002 paper purporting to show "bubble fusion" brought about by intense implosions of bubbles in a liquid bombarded with sound waves. Others have struggled without success to replicate the results, though Taleyarkhan says two little-recognized groups have done so.

The Hafnium Isomer Bomb

Gamma-ray Laser (Graser)

Hafnium-178m2 Isomer Triggering

Since 1999, a collaboration led by Professor Carl B. Collins (University of Texas at Dallas) has been reporting evidence for the release of energy stored in an unusually long-lived nuclear isomer of hafnium-178 induced by a dental x-ray. No other group has confirmed this result.