In March 1989, the claim of a revolutionary discovery in nuclear energy production galvanized the scientific community. It turned into a classic case of pathological science—and a textbook example of the self-correcting nature of science.
The quest for controllable nuclear fusion as a societal energy source has been multigenerational, expensive, and slow. The benefits of fusion—including a near-inexhaustible fuel source, relatively mundane and non-polluting products, and significant amounts of energy produced—are balanced by the technical difficulties and equipment involved. Research into this area is so expensive that support from nation-state entities is typically necessary. It goes without saying, then, that any breakthrough in fusion research, especially one that radically simplifies it and lowers its cost, would be a major breakthrough indeed.
Such was the setting thirty years ago when a major breakthrough was announced. What followed is now considered a classic case of how science works—and how science isn’t supposed to work. Here is what happened, what resulted, and how the entire series of events is viewed today.