Arsenic Life, Cold Fusion, and the Allure of Wishful Thinking

Lake Mono, courtesy of NASA.

In December 2010, a big story broke: NASA researchers studying a species of bacteria from Lake Mono in California had made a fantastic discovery. The Lake Mono environment is high in arsenic, and the scientists announced they had coaxed a strain of the bacteria into substituting arsenic for phosphorous in its DNA. The implications were staggering: if these results held up, they would be the first evidence of life built on a different blueprint than the standard one, with obvious applications to the hunt for extraterrestrial life. (Phosphorous and arsenic are chemically very similar, lying in the same column of the periodic table. This is part of the reason arsenic is generally toxic to life: it mimics phosphorous in essential biochemical reactions.) I excitedly announced this find in the classes I was teaching, and was thrilled to find that one of the researchers—Felisa Wolfe-Simon—had been a graduate student at Rutgers while I was there. Wolfe-Simon is even friend of a friend, and I suspect I met her at a few graduate student functions.

However, the story fell apart quickly under scrutiny by other researchers. Carl Zimmer summarized the reactions in Slate, and a huge discussion erupted on Twitter under the hashtag #arseniclife, dissecting the results. Another team of scientists led by Rosie Redfield decided to attempt repeating the experiment, suspecting that the NASA group had misinterpreted the data, failing to prove what they claimed they had done. This week, two papers—including the one by Redfield and her collaborators—have pretty much closed the book on the arsenic bacteria. Carmen Drahl, Matt Strassler, John Timmer, and Carl Zimmer all provide some perspective on the new papers, and there are many more analyses out there I haven’t had time to read yet. The narrative is clear: the NASA study had problems with execution and interpretation, the paper was rushed to publication, and the NASA researchers handled both the original announcement and the followup poorly. The new results reveal that the “arsenic bacteria” actually are efficient phosphorous scavengers, surviving in extremely low-phosphorous and high-arsenic environments that would wipe out most other known organisms.

I’m disappointed the bacteria don’t actually metabolize arsenic—it would be awesome to say the least if it were true—but I can’t argue with the new experiments. [Correction: Leonid Kruglyak, one of the coauthors of the new study, informs me that many bacteria do metabolize arsenic. However, they can’t substitute it for phosphorous in DNA. My apologies for the error!] Neither can I blame myself for being excited at first: I trusted the media narrative, and my biochemistry background is nonexistent, so I wasn’t able to evaluate the evidence for myself. I should have been more skeptical, I know, since (to quote Carl Sagan, himself drawing on earlier writers) extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, science doesn’t proceed by accepting what we wish was true, but by the often messy process of testing and retesting claims. That’s why the hunt for the Higgs boson still isn’t over, and why we can still get excited when new observations bear out well-established theories.

My current worry is that, based on some of the interviews and email exchanges with Wolfe-Simon and other authors of the original study, people will continue to assert that arsenic life is real. This is what happened with “cold fusion”, the 1989 announcement from University of Utah physicists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann declaring they had obtained nuclear fusion at room temperatures. Again, this claim was phenomenal: if their results were true, then energy in the future would be inexpensive, clean,  and abundant, eliminating the need for fossil fuel consumption forever. However, it was equally obvious the results were far-fetched: nuclear fusion requires overcoming a significant energy barrier, since nuclei are positively charged and repeal each other electrically. Stars achieve fusion through high pressure and temperature, and experiments have found no other reliable way to make it happen; the energy put into making fusion is greater than the energy output in every experiment so far. While I think we’ll figure fusion out someday, cold fusion is too unlikely to be true. Pons and Fleischmann failed to replicate their own results, and nobody else could manage them either. After an initial huge media circus, the cold fusion story died out, leaving just a few isolated people around the world working on it. Robert Park’s book Voodoo Science has a lot more on the story.

I was thinking about all this today because a Facebook friend posted a pro-cold fusion statement on their page. Once again, the promise of cold fusion is hard to deny: who wouldn’t want a cheap, abundant, non-polluting source of energy? The situation was complicated when my friend linked to this 1998 Wired article that basically says cold fusion is plausible and the scientific establishment is being too rigid in rejecting it. To put it mildly, I was frustrated to see that article:Wired is generally a respectable publication, and to see them promoting an idea unsupported by any evidence is annoying. Yes, it’s from 1998, but thanks to the eternal archive of the internet, it survives, lending credibility to an idea that should have died over 20 years ago.

I’m not familiar with the author of the Wired piece, but the article badly misrepresents how science works. Replicability lies at the heart of science: if you can’t reproduce the results of an experiment, something obviously went wrong the first time. Even if your lab repeats an experiment with the same result, but nobody else can replicate it under similar conditions, then either you are delusional or there is a hidden problem. (I exclude deliberate fraud from this discussion, since there’s no reason to suspect it in the cases I’m considering here.) As annoying as it is, experiments don’t prove anything by themselves: they require interpretation and a lot of backup. Just because the researchers are nice people with compelling personal stories doesn’t mean their research is correct.

The problem, as Maggie Koerth-Baker eloquently puts it, is that narrative often trumps science in the public view:

Good science usually makes a bigger deal out of the evidence than it makes out of the story. In fact, that’s actually a problem many legit scientists have—they’re better at talking about the details and data then they are at telling stories. But most of us respond to stories better than we respond to details and data.

(Maggie is referring particularly to crackpot science, drawing on John Timmer’s review of a grand “theory” about planet formation. Go read John’s piece too, while you’re at it.) The details of both the arsenic life and cold fusion stories reveal why they are not trustworthy, but wishful thinking is no substitute for reality.

13 responses to “Arsenic Life, Cold Fusion, and the Allure of Wishful Thinking”

  1. People make mistakes. It happens all the time. When Hubble found the universe to be expanding Einstein thought he must be wrong about the cosmological constant and called it his greatest blunder. Guess what, he was right. Maybe like so many, you are stuck on the wording “cold fusion”. Even Pons and Fleischmann knew in 1989 that “cold fusion” was the wrong thing to call it. Weak-force interactions and neutron-capture processes is a more accurate description of the reaction or LENR (low energy nuclear reactions). Most likely these will prove not to fully describe the reaction. Many people claim to have preformed these experiments with favorable results. Are they all liars or is it possible that you are the one who does not know it all? What ever you decide to call it the fact is there IS something going on that produces large quantities of heat with no harmful by products. Call it the future.

    1. So a response to a thoughtful article pointing out that there are zero repeatable experiments in is to claim there are – and no refs?

      It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. The article deserved better.

      1. “Thoughtful” really? I could post some references but it is unlikely a closed minded person would even look at them or admit they were credible.

  2. […] Speaking of xkcd, today’s strip is relevant to my post from Wednesday, about cold fusion. […]

  3. […] Arsenic Life, Cold Fusion, and the Allure of Wishful Thinking by Matthew Francis […]

  4. […] Arsenic Life, Cold Fusion, and the Allure of Wishful Thinking by Matthew Francis […]

  5. Cold fusion has been replicated in over 200 major laboratories. I have a collection of 1,200 peer-reviewed journal papers describing these replications that I copied from the libraries at Los Alamos and the Georgia Institute of Technology. If you go to a university or national laboratory library, you will find these papers yourself. You can find a bibliography of these papers, along with 1,300 full text papers here:


    Before you write about a scientific subject, I recommend you first read the peer-reviewed literature. It is clear from your comments that you have not read about cold fusion.

    1. Much as I hesitate to respond, it’s a red herring to say that these are “major laboratories” and “peer-reviewed” journals in the usual sense. There are a number of respected nuclear physics journals (Nuclear Physics A and B, Journal of Physics G – Nuclear and Particle, Physical Review C, etc.). If these papers showing cold fusion to be true have been published in such journals, neither I nor my colleagues working in nuclear fusion have seen them. If you pre-select your “peers”, you can always get an article published. Peer review may be imperfect in many ways (to put it mildly!), but it’s generally pretty good about filtering substantial ideas from ones that aren’t valid.

      Yes, there are people who say they have replicated the Pons and Fleischmann experiment, but if the larger nuclear physics community can’t do it, I’m really skeptical. I’m much more willing to accept these are chemical reactions (which is the standard explanation, based on my reading) than a fundamentally new type of nuclear interaction. At some point you have to invoke either mass stupidity on the part of nuclear and particle physicists (a dangerous and slanderous idea), or you have to invoke a conspiracy involving the entire physics community (which is frankly ridiculous).

      1. The journals at LANL and Georgia Tech are definitely peer reviewed. I suggest you review the bibliography yourself. See also:

        Ref. 1.

        Click to access RothwellJtallyofcol.pdf

        Most cold fusion researchers are chemists or electrochemists, so most papers have been published in their journals. Many editors at places like Phys. Rev. are opposed to the subject and do not send papers out to peer review. However, there have been important papers in J. Fusion Energy, Fusion Tech., Jap. J. of Applied Physics and Naturwissenschaften, for example.

        It takes chemists and electrochemists to replicate the effect. Most high energy physicists do not have the right skill set, for the same reason an electrochemist is not qualified to design a Tokamak reactor. However, there is no doubt the effect is nuclear. Experts in nuclear measurements at LANL, BARC, the ENEA and elsewhere have participated in the studies enough to confirm this. See:

        Click to access McKubreMCHcoldfusionb.pdf

        And here:

        Click to access StormsEstatusofcoa.pdf

        There is no chance than an effect observed at high signal to noise ratios, hundreds of times, at places such as LANL, BARC, the ENEA, Texas A&M, China Lake and so on is an experimental error. If that could happen, the scientific method itself would not work. Widespread replications at high signal to noise ratios is the only standard of truth in science. The fact that ~20 major laboratories failed to replicate in 1989 has no significance. The reasons they failed to replicate were clear a few years later. (See Ref. 1 above)

      2. I tried to respond to this comment but something is wrong with the comment system. In any case, no one has suggested mass stupidity or a conspiracy. Since many of the leading cold fusion scientists are physicists that is ridiculous.

        I suggest — once again — you read the peer-reviewed literature before commenting on this. You will find that your assertions here are technically wrong. I think it is a mistake for you to guess about scientific research. Read the facts first, then write your comments.

        I listed several leading nuclear physics journal papers but my comment was erased. I do not want to recreate the message. Please explore yourself, and look at the bibliography.

      3. Ah. The first comment reappeared. Good.

        There is a great deal more to be said. But the subject should be addressed in formal papers rather than short, on-line messages like this.

        The main thing is, to evaluate these claims you need to look at the technical information. You will not get anywhere speculating about people’s behavior or opinions, or the likelihood of “mass stupidity.” This is about calorimetry, mass spectroscopy, tritium, helium and so on. Academic politics play a large role in the social dynamics of cold fusion, but it should play absolutely no role in establishing the validity of the claims. Put all such considerations aside and look at high sigma replicated experimental data only.

  6. […] elements (hydrogen and helium) into the stuff we’re made of (carbon, oxygen, sulfur, phosphorous, iron, calcium). The fundamental forces of nature—gravity, electromagnetism, and the two nuclear […]

  7. Science is plagued with errors, I think mainly because research is mostly about failure until we finally get stuff straight. Ernst Mach denied particles existed, a Positivist, and help back science; Von Neunmann incorrectly proved a theorem that basically said quantum mechanics was complete; John Bell proved that any theory deeper than quantum mechanics must be non-local, (will soon be repudiated), people think that teleportation can actually happen.

    So errors abound, not to mention fraud, like the patch-work mouse. The hard point about these errors is that the stature of those who make the errors is so high that it is difficult to refute those in the Old Boy’s Club. Ernst Mach is an example. Then people become complaisant and the notions of others, incorrect as they are, become mainstream. Two quotes that come to mind are: “Quantum Mechanics and special relativity live in peaceful coexistence.” (Clauser on non-locality) and the interpretation given for teleportation is, hold only your hats, “quantum weirdness”.

    It might be disappointing that arsenic cannot replace phosphorus in life, but chemically it has tiny little p-orbitals, when compared to N and P and would have a tough time doing the same tricks that P can do. Asenic is also relatively rare in our environment, and we evolved basically in an As-free environment. Likely that is why it is toxic to us because we never developed a way of dealing with it.

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