of removing laboratory equipment that was
After the Nature articles, Sally Mason,
provost of Purdue, hurriedly organized an inquiry committee in March 2006 and said it
would have a decision by June. The focus of
the inquiry was not whether Mr. Taleyarkhan
had created bubble fusion, but whether he
had interfered with the subsequent supporting demonstration by his student, Mr. Xu.
During this time, Mr. Taleyarkhan says, two
more scientists came into his laboratory and
independently verified bubble fusion. Mr.
Taleyarkhan contends that both were experts
and did their work independently of him. But
in interviews, both researchers contradict aspects of that account. One of those scientists,
Edward R. Forringer, a professor of physics at
Le Tourneau University, in Texas, says he is
certainly not an expert. Nonetheless, he says
he is confident that his results do support the
reality of bubble fusion.
The other scientist mentioned by Mr. Taleyarkhan is William Bugg, a retired particle-detection specialist from the University of
Tennessee. He says he checked for californium, but at a certain point he had to trust Mr.
Taleyarkhan and his laboratory. However, he
freely admits that he did not actually conduct
the experiment. He watched Mr. Taleyarkhan
do the work.
After conducting its inquiry, Purdue sided
with Mr. Taleyarkhan, saying in a brief February 2007 news release that there was no evidence of misconduct. But the questions have
not subsided. Two weeks ago, the House
Committee on Science and Technology started an investigation, saying that it had concerns both about the research itself and about
the way Purdue conducted its inquiry.
Researchers have not totally given up on
Mr. Taleyarkhan’s idea. Many who criticize
his methods, and even those who accuse him
of fraud, reluctantly say bubble fusion may
work someday. However, that day will probably not be soon and may not be in the United
States. Mr. Lahey, Mr. Taleyarkhan’s former
adviser, still has hope for bubble fusion and is
an avid supporter of Purdue’s work, but he
says that federal money for the technology
has all but dried up in this country. He looks
to Europe, where he says laboratories are still
working on the problem.
“For any of us who’ve been involved with
it, there’s no doubt that it is real,” he says,
adding “I’ve learned in this business it ain’t
over ‘til it’s over.”
The problem, says Mr. Lahey, is not with
Mr. Taleyarkhan’s science, but with the way
he described to others how to build the cell.
“It was like a chef who knows how to make a
great meal, but he doesn’t know what’s in
there,” he says. Mr. Lahey says the first cells
were built “to taste,” moving a piece here,
shaving down a piston there, leaving other researchers to more or less do the same.
Mr. Putterman rejects that assessment and
says the problems were more basic than a few
tweaks to the system. He adds that he had
more to gain than lose if Mr. Taleyarkhan had
succeeded. “I would be thrilled if he was right
and he had fusion,” he says.
Another person hoping to gain from bubble fusion was Ross Tessien, president and
founder of Impulse Devices Inc., in Grass Valley, Calif. He has spent $4-million trying to get
bubble fusion to work, even hiring Mr. Taleyarkhan as a consultant.
Mr. Tessien says he still thinks of Mr. Taleyarkhan as a friend but “walks the fence” as
to whether Mr. Taleyarkhan ever created
bubble fusion. He says Mr. Taleyarkhan’s designs were impossible to follow, and the machine was prone to problems.
“It’s a nightmare to run it, and it breaks,”
he says. “The only reason we got it to run as
close as we did was because it was our sole
purpose in life.”
However, the California engineer says he
had some success with Mr. Taleyarkhan’s design. After years of tinkering, Mr. Tessien
claims to have achieved temperatures up to
almost one million degrees in the collapsing
bubbles. But bubble fusion would require the
bubbles to collapse hard enough to reach 10
million degrees, a vital factor of 10 times
more that is difficult to achieve.
THE COST OF CONFLICT
Today, Mr. Taleyarkhan has little regret for
how he presented bubble fusion to the world.
Rather than spending more time helping scientists like Mr. Putterman, he says he wishes
he had ignored them altogether.
Mr. Taleyarkhan’s unwillingness to help anyone he sees as having “vested interests” seems
to breed mistrust in critics, who call him over-secretive. Mr. Lahey says Mr. Taleyarkhan was
one of the best students he ever had, but he
also says the man can be a “bulldog” who
sometimes irritates the egos of other scientists.
Thor Swift for the Chronicle
Ross Tessien, president and founder of Impulse Devices, has spent
more than $4-million in pursuit of workable bubble fusion.
Sitting in his laboratory on the day Congress announced its investigation, Mr. Taleyarkhan conceded that the controversy has
taken its toll on him. He has become an outcast at conferences, bubble fusion grants have
dried up, and most of his research financing is
dwindling. Since March of 2006, he has had a
pervasive ringing in his ears.
“The doctors say it’s stress related,” he
He walks around the laboratory and
points out the work his students are doing
using bubbles to detect radioactive material.
Many of those students are undergraduates,
and he admits he has had to turn graduate
students away because of “internal problems” in the school.
Neither he nor his students are now doing
any work in bubble fusion.
Several students gather around one apparatus, and Mr. Taleyarkhan explains that
by spinning a water-filled glass tube, they
can “stretch” the water and create pressure
on a cork at the top of the device. Then, using a laser to release that energy, they can
fire the cork at the ceiling at “near-lethal
The students start the device, and the
tubes begin to spin. Finally, Mr. Xu, who still
works in the laboratory, turns on the laser.
The cork pops out anemically and bounces
to the ground. There is a brief disappointed
silence. Science can be hard to do when
everybody is watching.
U.S. House Panel Reviews Research-Misconduct Investigation at Purdue
In an official request for documents
from Purdue University, a U.S. House
of Representatives committee has
questioned the credibility of the university’s investigation into research misconduct
by one of its scientists.
In March 2006, Purdue’s administration
hastily put together a committee to look
into the research of Rusi P. Taleyarkhan, a
professor of nuclear engineering. The
thrust of the inquiry was not to determine
whether Mr. Taleyarkhan had achieved
bubble fusion, which he claimed to have
done, but whether he had ghost-written a
paper by two students, Yiban Xu and
Adam Butt, confirming his own work.
Under federal guidelines, reviews of research misconduct should be based on written allegations and come in two phases: an
open-ended inquiry and, should the inquiry
find cause, an investigation. In July, after
four months of inquiry, Purdue announced
it would convene a more formal investigation. Including a fact-finding committee
formed by the head of the School of Nuclear Engineering, this would be the third
Purdue committee to look into the matter.
In an interview, Sally Mason, provost of
Purdue, said the first formal written allegations of misconduct against Mr. Taleyarkhan came in September 2006 from
Lefteri Tsoukalas, head of the School of
Nuclear Engineering. However, Mr. Tsoukalas points to e-mail messages sent to the
provost’s office as early as October 2005
in which he questions the authorship of
Mr. Xu and Mr. Butt’s paper. He also
points to a June letter to the provost’s of-
fice written by Kenneth Suslick, a chemist
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a critic of bubble fusion,
that made serious accusations.
Though Mr. Tsoukalas says he spoke to
the inquiry committee, neither he nor Mr.
Suslick were contacted by the investigation
committee, nor were two other scientists
who had made detailed accusations. Ms. Mason declined to comment on who was contacted by the committee, but said she felt the
work of the committee was thorough.
The Congressional letter cited a lack of
meticulous inquiry as well as a report by
the original fact-finding committee. In that
report, Mr. Butt said he did not write one
of the confirmation papers listing him as
an author and never even read the other
before it was published. In the letter, Mr.
Xu told the Purdue committee that he
could not “state who had written the final
article, saying it would jeopardize the ‘
confirmatory’ nature of the research.”
Ms. Mason stands behind the second Purdue committee’s eventual finding that there
was insufficient evidence of research misconduct. Instead, she says the charges are
related to internal strife in the department.
“What you’ve got are really some individuals here who, for whatever reason, are
pretty unhappy with each other and are
going at it tooth and nail,” she says. “And
they really like to use whoever they can as
a scapegoat to make a point.”
In December, Mr. Tsoukalas stepped
down as head of the school in protest, he
says, of the administration’s dragging its
feet. —Erik Vance