NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Cold fusion, gender parity in universities, and studying wildfires

Nick Howe brings you the latest science updates.

This week, looking back at cold fusion, a league table of universities' gender balance, and measuring the impact of wildfires.

In this episode:

00:10 Cold fusion 30 years on

Remembering the controversial claim of the discovery of cold fusion. World View: Lessons from cold fusion, 30 years on; News: Google revives controversial cold-fusion experiments; Perspective: Revisiting the cold case of cold fusion

06:40 News Chat

A league table of gender in science, closure of the Sanger animal facility, and researchers start a forest fire to study its effects. News: Eastern European universities score highly in university gender ranking; News: Genomics institute to close world-leading animal facility; News: These scientists are setting a forest on fire — and studying it with drones

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Transcript

This week, looking back at cold fusion, a league table of universities' gender balance, and measuring the impact of wildfires.

Host: Nick Howe

Hi everyone – it’s Nick from the Nature Podcast here. Most of the team are out on assignment at the moment so we’ve got a little bit of an abbreviated show this week. Later on, Nisha Gaind will be joining me for a special extended News Chat, but before that, Benjamin Thompson is heading back to 1989 to hear about a big claim that ultimately came to nothing.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Thirty years ago, two US-based researchers claimed to have seen evidence of something extraordinary. Chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced to the world that they’d seen signs of hydrogen atoms fusing to create helium. What they described is called nuclear fusion. It’s the process that powers the Sun, and it produces a huge amount of energy. But the temperatures and pressures involved there are astonishingly high, making fusion difficult to achieve here on Earth. That hasn’t stopped people trying though, and for years, researchers have been attempting to create miniature suns in huge, expensive facilities. But Pons and Fleischmann didn’t use one of those. They said they’d managed to get fusion to happen in a rather different way – in what looks, three decades later, to be a famous example of wishful thinking. Here’s science writer Phil Ball.

Interviewee: Phil Ball

The claim was that this had been achieved using benchtop chemistry. So, that was really, really extraordinary because normally you need the huge apparatus that maintains these incredibly hot environments in order to get the nuclei to fuse together, whereas this benchtop chemistry didn’t need any of that.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

The pair claimed to have achieved so-called cold fusion by running an electrical current through a relatively simple apparatus.

Interviewee: Phil Ball

And they said that they had just done this process and that they had measured a large output of heat from that process. In fact, more heat, more energy was coming out than they were feeding in with the electrical current.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And this would have been huge.

Interviewee: Phil Ball

The notion that you could achieve nuclear fusion this way and create a source of abundant energy this simply was extraordinary – literally would have revolutionised energy production. It would have given us a source of abundant clean energy.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Ultimately, their claims didn’t hold water and cold fusion never really got off the ground. But it certainly captured the imagination of the scientific world at the time.

Interviewee: Phil Ball

It was a very exciting time, without a doubt, because if these claims were right, that in itself was exciting. But the whole scientific community, certainly the physical sciences, were buzzing with this idea because this was something that physicists had been trying to do for decades, so they were really interested. Chemists were jubilant at first that they had beaten physicists to it, it seemed!

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Phil was working in the physical sciences team at Nature when Pons and Fleischmann first went public.

Interviewee: Phil Ball

The claims were first announced pretty much out of the blue in March of 1989, in a press conference which, these days in science, it’s not that unusual to hear bold, striking new claims announced in a press conference before the work has actually been published. In those days, it was a very unusual thing to do and it raised a lot of eyebrows. A huge claim like this means that people want to see exactly what is done. They want to see the results. What they really want is a paper recording all the technical details of what was done and there was nothing of this sort that Fleischmann and Pons were presenting. However, they did have a paper and very shortly after the press conference, they submitted it to Nature for peer review.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

According to Phil, the reviewers didn’t dismiss the findings, but they had questions. They wanted more details of exactly what Pons and Fleischmann had done.

Interviewee: Phil Ball

When they saw the referees’ comments, they declined to resubmit. They said they’d rather focus on doing further studies to verify what they had done. So, that paper was withdrawn and it never resurfaced and there never really was a clear, thorough, detailed explanation of what those guys had done, and that was really the problem all along.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Pons and Fleischmann’s paper never did see the light of day. They did publish a short paper in in the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry but it too was lacking in detail. In the months that followed, Nature published a series of follow-up papers by other groups – none of which found any evidence of cold fusion. The discovery was quickly labelled a false alarm. However, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there remained those who were committed to the idea that the phenomenon was real.

Interviewee: Phil Ball

The prize, the goal, was so big that it was very hard to let go of, and Pons and Fleischmann were certainly standing by their claims, so there was a small community of people who were sure that there was something in here that was worth investigating. So, really, over years and years and now decades, there has been this small contingent of people determined to find something worth hanging on to here, but nothing has ever emerged in the general scientific literature that has persuaded people.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So here we are 30 years on, and this week, Nature has published a peer-reviewed Perspective article from a group of researchers, funded by Google. They’ve been revisiting cold fusion experiments with the aim of testing previous claims in a rigorous and reproducible way. Spoiler alert – they didn’t see any evidence of cold fusion. But their work does tell us how scientists can study the very challenging experimental conditions under which it might occur, and offers some advances in materials science that could be useful for future energy research. But Phil thinks there is more than just scientific clarity to be gained from reassessing 30 years of cold fusion research.

Interviewee: Phil Ball

Looking back at how cold fusion unfolded 30 years ago, it didn’t make science look terribly good that it had made this incredibly bold claim that didn’t stand up to scrutiny. It made it look, to some people, as though scientists didn’t really know what they were doing. In terms of the personal dynamics and politics of how that happened, there are things worth learning. I think that what we saw was a quick polarisation between the true believers in cold fusion and all the sceptics and I think that there will be claims like this that come along from time to time and we need to find ways of maintaining dialogue rather than sort of isolating and ostracising really the scientists who make them. If we can think more carefully about how to avoid this sort of polarisation when big claims are made, science would benefit.

Host: Nick Howe

That was Phil Ball who’s written a World View on the cold fusion story, which you’ll find over at nature.com along with the new Perspective article.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Last up on the show, it’s time for a special extended News Chat. Joining me today is Nisha Gaind, Nature’s European Bureau Chief. Hi, Nisha.

Interviewee: Nisha GaindHi, Nick.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Thanks for joining me. So, first up, we’ve got a story about a ranking of universities by gender balance. Nisha, what’s going on here?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, we’ve got this university league table called the Leiden Ranking and it’s quite well known. It measures universities by their scientific performance and this year, for the first time, they’ve added something called the gender indicator which measures universities’ gender balance.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, how do you work out what the gender balance is?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, this gender indicator looks at the whole of a university’s research output and it counts up every author on these research papers and it uses an algorithm to determine whether an author is a man or a woman, and it calculates based on that the proportion of the university’s research authors who are women.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Right, and is this a good way to work out who are men and who are women because, for instance, I’ve got friends who are also called Nick who are women.

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Yeah, that’s a really good question. So, the indicator uses quite a widely-used algorithm called the Gender API which has a way to determine the gender of a name, but of course there are limitations. The people who created the indicator note that one particular limitation applies to Asian names because the algorithm is not quite as good at determining the gender of those names. So, they give the caveat that the scores that they find for universities in Asia could be affected by this limitation.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Right, so this is how it’s done – what did it find?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, the results are quite interesting and they support previous types of work in this area and they find that institutes in South America and eastern Europe do quite well in this gender balance ranking, and in fact, the top ten is dominated by universities in these regions.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And do we know why that might be?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, outwardly, it seems like a very good thing that you have lots of women in your university because science is always striving to improve gender balance, but actually, in these regions it seems to be down to something that is a little bit more problematic. One of the ideas that has been posited is that science jobs in these places might pay comparatively low wages, which means that men are often found in other, more high-paying positions in other sectors.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

What about the so-called leading universities? How are they doing?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

If we look at what are considered the typically most research-intensive universities which are places in the United States, in the UK, in China, Japan and in Sweden, they are really widely spread throughout this ranking, so some do very well – about 40% of their authors are women. Some do pretty poorly and they have only about 20% of their authors who are women, so there’s a big spread.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

What’s the hope for this ranking? How might it better help achieve gender parity?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

League tables can be quite controversial and are often not always viewed positively, but in this case, people who study gender in science say that actually this is a really big step and it’s very positive to have this type of metric in a major global ranking because universities often look to indicators like this to set their goals and it means that these metrics could have really immediate effects on how university administrators run their institutions.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Moving on to our second story, we’re talking about the closure of the Sanger animal facility. Nisha, what can you tell me about this?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Yeah, so this is a story from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which is one of the UK’s top genomics institutes, and they have announced this month that they are going to close their animal research facility which is known as one of the best in the world. It’s got very sophisticated equipment. The facility sends mouse strains to researchers all over the world, so a lot of people rely on this facility.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, why have they decided to close it?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, the institute says that the closure is a consequence of a move towards using alternative technologies in genetics research and they talk about things like cell lines and organoids, which are these 3D biological structures that can be grown in a dish, and they also say that they have changed the direction of their research a little bit so they are focusing on different types of genetics research that doesn’t involve animals – for example, sequencing plant species and so on.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Right, and what’s been the reaction of the scientists?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, some people in the science community have reacted quite strongly to this news and some researchers worry that it’s too soon for Sanger to be closing or scaling back their animal research and that it might even curtail the centre’s ability to do cutting-edge science.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And why do they think this?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, we’ve spoken to several geneticists who say that this type of research still really relies on animal models, especially mice, and that it’s quite important for complex diseases like cancer, where it benefits researchers to be able to see how whole organisms interact and some researchers say that other institutions are in fact stepping up the amount of animal research that they do. But overall, the reaction has been that mouse models are still irreplaceable. They haven’t been replaced by complex datasets yet.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, was there anyone in favour of such a move?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Yes, there has been some reaction from people who are not particularly surprised at the move and they say that the current trend in biology is indeed to move towards these more in vitro systems to study human biology, which supports the Wellcome and Sanger’s view.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Well, a few months ago, scientists raised concerns about the welfare of animals at the facility. Do we know if this has anything to do with the closure?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Yeah, that’s right. So, there has been what seems to be a quarrel between some scientists at Sanger and the leadership at Sanger and we know that six month ago, there were scientists who work at this animal facility who had raised concerns about animal welfare there. Sanger said that they responded to those concerns and they put in place changes that meant that welfare standards were kept to the appropriate levels and they also say that this closure has nothing to do with these concerns and it is to do with the changes in the direction of biological research.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, for our last story in this special extended News Chat, we’re talking about scientists setting a forest on fire. I’m assuming this isn’t just a fit of pyromania – Nisha, what’s going on here?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Yeah, this is a very interesting experiment and very fitting because, as we know, there have been massive wildfires in North America in the past few years that have really ravaged particular regions. So, in a bid to research fire and smoke and what happens in these instances, researchers are going to set a fire on purpose sometime in late June in a forest in Utah.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, is this going to be a very realistic representation of a wildfire?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, that’s a good question. Obviously, it’s difficult to truly mimic natural circumstances but the scientists behind the experiment say that they are going to do that – they’re going to mimic a natural wildfire and it is expected to burn as intensely as those fires typically do.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, what’s the hope here? What are they trying to achieve by studying this wildfire?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, overall, these researchers want to measure as much as they possibly can and collect as much data as they can, but chiefly they are interested in looking at how smoke plumes rise from a blaze. That’s important because it means that they should be able to improve forecasts of where smoke will spread and how it will affect people’s homes and health which are obviously some of the things that are most badly affected when there are wildfires.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, you said they’re collecting loads of data. How are they going to go about it, Nisha?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, in this experiment, the researchers are going to be using drones and radar equipment to do things like record the flames on video, measure the temperature of the forest as it burns, as well as probe the shape and density of these smoke plumes as they rise, and some drones will actually fly directly into smoke plumes. But this experiment is also part of a broader push to start monitoring wildfires, so there are also some other efforts to use planes to fly over naturally occurring wildfires to try and gather data there as well.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, what are the researchers involved saying?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Firstly, it’s a really interesting and ambitious experiment and one researchers say it takes a lot of guts to light this kind of fire. But overall, they are excited that they are going to get so much data because they’re going to study this fire so intensely and really that it’s the first time any fire has been targeted so comprehensively.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Well, we’ll have to keep an eye on that burning story as it develops. Nisha, thanks for joining me. Listeners, if you want to read more about those stories, you can find them over at nature.com/news. That’s it for this week’s show. We’ll be back next time with a regular edition of the Nature Podcast. I’ve been Nick Howe. Thanks for listening.