Confusion over cold fusion lands man on death row in Alabama
The return address was Birmingham, AL. The writer was serving a life term in Birmingham prison for sending pipe bombs that killed a federal judge and a civil rights leader. The carefully hand-written letter explained in grammatical prose how the writer had been wrongfully convicted in a federal court and sentenced to life in prison. Now he was to be re-tried in a state court for the same murders in the hopes of electrocuting him. The writer did not care to be electrocuted.
So what do pipe bombs have to do with a trained tin kicker such as this Calamities writer? Prosecution witnesses testified to explosion-like sounds coming from the defendant’s home. The prosecution claimed these noises were gunpowder explosions from testing explosives for the pipe bombs. The defendant countered with the claim that he was an amateur scientist doing experiments in hydrogen fusion.
The prosecution ridiculed this assertion with the claim that the simplest fusion experiment is beyond the dreams of any amateur. Most hydrogen fusion research is based on Tokomak reactors, toroidal steel shells that contain super-hot plasmas confined by powerful magnetic fields. The proposed doughnut-shaped reactors cover half a football field and even an experiment takes up an entire research building. Such research is utterly beyond any rational amateur scientist. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to “life imprisonment.”
The defendant’s claim was actually reasonable. The killings occurred not long after Utah scientists named Pons and Fleischman claimed to have produced nuclear fusion in a simple electrolytic cell involving palladium electrodes and heavy water, also known as deuterium oxide. Palladium dissolves large amounts of hydrogen, in this case deuterium. Supposedly, the voltage impressed on the palladium lattice squeezes the deuterium atoms so tightly together that they “fuse” to give off new nuclei and a huge energy burst. The experiment is really quite simple and even the needed heavy water and palladium wire could be obtained for about $1,000.
Running an electric current through water tends to produce hydrogen bubbles. The presence of hydrogen is usually verified by catching a little of the vapor and touching a match to it. A hydrogen-air mixture burns explosively in almost all proportions, producing a sharp “pop.” The defendant claimed that the noises from his home were caused by ignition of the explosive air — a hydrogen mixture rather than the gunpowder used in the pipe bomb.
The inmate got my name from a directory of forensic scientists and contacted me in the hopes I could distinguish between hot fusion and cold fusion in terms a judge and jury could understand. Between teaching MIT freshmen and court appearances, I have much experience in putting complex things in simple terms, so I agreed to take the job. I also have an interest in cold fusion, which I consider “Pathological Science,” which Scientist Irving Langmuir defined as “The science of things that aren’t so.” Pathological or real, cold fusion inspired a huge amount of activity.
The Smoking Gun
I wrote back and forth to the inmate and his attorney and was preparing to appear at the second murder trial. Unfortunately for him, the defendant had a sea of troubles with potential legal representation and appeared at the trial without counsel. I was not called as a witness. The defendant was convicted of murder, sentenced to be executed and is currently on death row.
I look the man’s name up on the Web from time to time to see how he is doing. He has appealed and claims all sorts of chicanery in his conviction. Would my appearance in court have made a difference? I do not know, but it would have been a very interesting experience.
Ken Russell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor emeritus of Metallurgy and Nuclear Engineering at MIT. He specializes in physical metallurgy, forensic metallurgy and failure analysis. Cases presented here are drawn from his actual forensic files.