I have been rereading Arthur Koestler’s biography of Kepler, “The Watershed,” particularly the chapter on Galileo. I think it tells us a lot about people’s reactions to cold fusion.
To understand this history, you have to understand Galileo’s personality. He was a genius, a brilliant scientist, and he made many important contributions to both science and practical technology. He was also a terrible person. He was a political animal. He was cold and sarcastic and spent his whole life feuding with other scholars. He described an academic rival he thought had plagiarized his work as "that malevolent enemy of honor and of the whole of mankind," "a venom spitting basilisk." Koestler writes:
[Galileo’s] vanity, jealousy and self-righteousness combined into a demonic force, which drove him to the brink of self-destruction. . . .
Copernicus had been a kind of invisible man throughout his life; nobody who met the disarming Kepler, in the flesh or by correspondence, could seriously dislike him. But Galileo had a rare gift of provoking enmity – not the affection alternating with rage which Tycho aroused, but the cold, unrelenting hostility which genius plus arrogance minus humility creates among mediocrities.
Galileo knew that Copernican astronomy was correct. He realized that in his 20s, around 1590. He was happy to describe this in private to his friends, and to praise Copernicus. In private. But he spent most of his career -- 20 years or so -- attacking it, denigrating and ridiculing it, and teaching Ptolemy instead, in his role as a professor. This was not because he feared persecution. On the contrary, during this time the Catholic Church supported Copernicus. He attacked it and ridiculed it because it was unfashionable and because he did not want to be mocked and derided. As he himself wrote, he did not want to be "laughed at and hissed off the stage."
Koestler writes: "Like Copernicus he was afraid of the ridicule of both the unlearned and the learned asses, but particularly of the latter: his fellow professors at peace and Padua, the stuffed shirts of the peripatetic school, who still considered Aristotle and Ptolemy as absolute authority."
In 1597 Galileo wrote a letter to Kepler thanking him for a copy of Kepler’s book "Cosmic Mystery." Let me quote part of the letter. Galileo wrote in a rush because the person who delivered the book was returning to Germany, so he only had time to read the preface:
. . . So far I have only perused the preface of your work, but from this I gained some notion of its intent, and I indeed congratulate myself on having an associate in the study of Truth who is a friend of truth. For it is a misery that so few exist to pursue the Truth and do not pervert philosophical reason. However, this is not the place to deploy the miseries of our century but to congratulate you on the ingenious arguments you found in proof of the Truth. I will only add that I promise to read your book in tranquility, certain to find the most admirable things in it, and this I shall do the more gladly as I adapted the teaching of Copernicus many years ago, and his point of view enables me to explain many phenomena of nature would certainly remain inexplicable according to the more current hypotheses. I have written many arguments in support of him and reputation of the opposite view – which, however, so far I have not dared to bring into the public light, frightened by the fate of Copernicus himself, our teacher, who, though he acquired immortal fame with some, is yet to an infinite multitude of others (for such as the number of fools) an object of ridicule and derision. I would certainly dare to publish my reflections at once if more people like you existed; as they don’t, I shall refrain from doing so.
Koestler describes how many years later, Galileo was still promoting Ptolemy’s theories:
The letter is important for several reasons. First, it provides conclusive evidence that Galileo had become a convinced Copernican in his early years. He was 33 when he wrote the letter; and the phrase “many years ago” indicates that his conversion took place in his 20s. Yet his first explicit public pronouncement in favor of the Copernican system was only made in 1613, a full 16 years after his letter to Kepler, when Galileo was 49 years of age. Through all these years he not only taught, in his lectures, the old astronomy according to Patel me, but expressly repudiated Copernicus. In a treatise which he wrote for circulation among pupils and friends, of which a manuscript copy dated 1606 survives, he adduced all the traditional arguments against the Earth’s motion: that rotation would make it disintegrate, that clouds would be left behind, etc. etc. -- arguments which if the letter is to be believed he himself had refuted many years before.
But the letter is also interesting for other reasons. In a single breath, Galileo four times evokes “Truth”: friend of Truth, investigating Truth, pursuit of Truth, proof of Truth; then, apparently without awareness of the paradox, he calmly announces his intention to suppress Truth.
Toward the end of his life, at age 49 in 1613, Galileo finally publicly came out in favor of Copernican astronomy, I gather because he thought it would be politically advantageous at that time. Unfortunately for him, in 1616 some of the Catholic church scientists came out against it, for political reasons, so he was forced to renounce it. As far as I can tell, there was little or no scientific content to these disputes. It was academic politics. It was one clique against another, and mainly a dispute about funding and academic prestige, similar to plasma fusion opposition to cold fusion.
Kepler enthusiastically promoted Galileo's books and theories. Galileo ignored Kepler for many years, and then borrowed some of his ideas without acknowledging him.
In 1610, Galileo made tremendous improvements to the telescope. Most telescopes at that time were around 7 x magnification. Galileo’s instruments reached 1000 x. He made many startling observations of the surface of the moon, the moons of Jupiter, stars that could not be seen with the naked eye. He published a short booklet 24 pages long titled “Star Messenger.” This was a sensation all throughout Europe. He got in some political difficulty because it was so revolutionary. He mentioned Copernican theory only obliquely, not giving it much support, so that was not the reason he got in trouble. It was because the results were so extraordinary. The scholars in Italy were: "with very few exceptions, hostile or skeptical. The first and for some time the only, scholarly voice raised in public and defensive Galileo was Johannes Kepler’s." By this time Kepler was the most famous astronomer in Europe, and highly respected.
Koestler writes that Kepler "did it enthusiastically and without hesitation, publicly offering to serve in the battle as Galileo’s 'squire" or 'shield bearer' -- he, the Imperial Mathematicus, to the recently still unknown Italian scholar. It was one of the most generous gestures in the annals of science."
Galileo, characteristically, did not communicate with Kepler or acknowledge his support in person, but he benefited a great deal from it, and he bragged about it in a job application to the Grand Duke of Tuscany for a new professorship.
Galileo’s new telescope was difficult to use. It was not mounted; you had to point and hold it manually. It produced double images in some cases. Many experts looked through it saw nothing, and reported that his observations were probably mistakes. It resembled cold fusion experiments in that regard. This gave rise to accusations of sloppiness and even fraud.
Kepler requested one of Galileo’s improved telescopes, but Galileo ignored him, distributing telescopes to his financial supporters among the nobility instead. Finally, Kepler wrote to him:
The law demands that everybody should be trusted unless the contrary is proven. And how much more is this the case when the circumstances warrant trustworthiness. In fact we are dealing not with the philosophical but with a legal problem: did Galileo deliberately mislead the world by a hoax? . . .
I do not wish to hide from you that letters have reached Prague from several Italians who deny that these planets can be seen through your telescope.
I am asking myself how it is possible that so many deny [their existence], including those who possess a telescope. . . . Therefore I ask you, by Galileo, nominate witnesses for me as soon as possible. From various letters written by you to third persons I have learned that you do not lack such witnesses. But I am unable to name any testimony except your own . . .
Galileo with his political mind took this to mean that Kepler might withdraw his support. He quickly wrote a response that Koestler describes as "evidently scared by the prospect of losing his most powerful ally" saying: "I wish to thank you for being the first, and almost the only, person who completely accepted my assertions, though you had no proof, thanks to your frank and noble mind." By “no proof” he meant that Kepler did not have a powerful new 1000 x telescope yet. Galileo thanked Kepler, but he never sent him a telescope and he never gave him a list of people who had confirmed his observations.
The way Kepler asked for proof reminds me of the way many fair-minded people outside the field of cold fusion ask for good experiments. Fortunately, we have more to offer than Galileo did. Unfortunately, we cannot 'send them a telescope' in the form of an experiment they themselves can do.
Here are some lessons from this history --
If you think that academic politics began in the 20th century you need to study history. It was just as bad in the 16th century as it is now.
Many scientists probably think cold fusion is real, or they suspect it is real, but they will not come out publicly and say so. I suppose they resemble Galileo. They are not afraid of persecution so much as ridicule. Their fear of ridicule and their vanity overcomes their scientific training, and their moral scruples, if they have any. (Galileo did not have any moral scruples. Koestler quotes a psychiatrist who described late Renaissance Italy as “that age without a superego.”) Scientists then and now will betray any truth no matter how important, and block any technology even at the cost of millions of lives a year. Most people in any era care only about their own welfare and their own pocketbook. They do not care about the truth. They do not care about progress or the future, or the nobility of science. Academic scientists care more getting a parking space near the lab than they do about the Truth. As Stan Szpak said, they believe whatever you pay them to believe.
This goes for people in all walks of life, not just scientists. Before the 2008 crash, many bankers and real estate agents may have suspected there was widespread corruption and a bubble in the real estate market, but they said nothing and did nothing. They went along with the crowd.
Personality and politics drive history. If Kepler had not been such a nice person, and so fair minded, he would not have supported Galileo. Galileo would not as quickly have gotten a better professorship and wider support. Emotions, politics and power play a leading role in all events. If only a few more powerful scientists, or the editors at Nature, had supported Fleischmann and Pons perhaps cold fusion would have prospered.
Accusations of hoaxes, lying and knavery have been part of science from the beginning, and always will be part of it.
Politics and emotion interfered with science as much then as now. It is human nature. (Actually, primate nature.) Hagelstein wrote a masterful essay describing the effect of human nature on science:
In my view this is because practicing science is against human nature. It is something we do despite our nature, not because of it. It resembles war. People in their natural state are aggressive, but normally they run from overwhelming danger. They have to be trained extensively and they have to overcome basic instincts to face an enemy in battle. People in their natural state are curious and inclined to explore things – as are small children, most animals including other primates, and even guppies. But despite this curiosity, people are usually unwilling to entertain new ideas. Novelty usually frightens people and other primates. In our era, science faces a great deal of hostility from the public because of this. We think this is a new thing but it has always been this way. Support for science is at a low ebb at present for the same reason anti-vaccination hysteria is rampant. People forgotten what it was like before polio was eliminated. People have forgotten, or they never learned how much we owe to science. Hostility to new ideas was described by Francis Bacon and countless other authors. I think this the main source of opposition to cold fusion. Scientists are as prone to this as any other group of people. Even programmers tend to be conservative, even though their jobs depend on keeping up with the latest technology. Yes, the problem is politics, but more than that it is human nature. Not a conspiracy, not the oil companies, not evil . . . just human nature. Quoting Bacon:
The human understanding, when any preposition has been once laid down... forces everything else to add fresh support and confirmation; and although more cogent and abundant instances may exist to the contrary, yet it either does not observe them or it despises them, or it gets rid of and rejects them by some distinction, with violent and injurious prejudice, rather than sacrifice the authority of its first conclusions. - Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
If we watch ourselves honestly we shall often find that we have begun to argue against a new idea even before it has been completely stated. - Wilfred Trotter
One other lesson from this is that you should not trust conventional history books. Most descriptions of Galileo and his life are complete fantasies. Koestler writes:
The personality of Galileo, as it emerges from works of popular science, has little relation to historic fact. This is not caused by a benevolent indifference toward the individual as distinct from his achievement, but by more partisan motives. . . . Contrary to statements and even recent outlines of science, Galileo did not invent the telescope; nor the microscope; nor the thermometer; nor the pendulum clock. He did not discover the laws of inertia; nor the parallelogram of forces or motions; nor the sunspots. He made no contribution to theoretical astronomy; he did not throw down weights from the leaning Tower of Pisa, and did not prove the truth of the Copernican system. He was not tortured by the Inquisition, did not languish in its dungeons, did not say "eppur si muove"; and he was not a martyr of science.
What he did was to found the modern science of dynamics, which makes him rank among the men who shaped human destiny. . . . .
I expect the history of cold fusion written in the future will be equally preposterous.