07 December 2008

Natural Nuclear Fusion in the Earth’s Interior?

Here comes the promised funny story about real junk science. Recently, the following article was published in the Journal of Fusion Energy:
Jiang et al., 2008. Tritium Released from Mantle Source: Implications for Natural Nuclear Fusion in the Earth’s Interior. J. Fusion Energ. 27:346–354. DOI 10.1007/s10894-008-9149-y.
As usual, the entire article is not freely available, but you can get at least a free preview of the first page here.

What's so funny about this article? Well, first of all, the hypothesis that nuclear fusion takes place in the deep Earth (geo-fusion) is quite unusual, but more on that later. The point that raised my interest (after being tipped-off by a colleague, thanks Rainer!) is that this article cites no less than 5 papers which I have (co-)authored. Ok, on three occasions my name is misspelled in the citation, but still they must mean those papers. Up to now, I did not know I was into fusion research. How come I get cited in the Journal of Fusion Energy?

I have been involved in some research on tritium and He isotopes in volcanic lakes, together with my former Swiss colleagues from Eawag. The authors of the current article heavily rely on our papers dealing with Lake Nemrut (Turkey) and Laacher See (Germany). There we found clear evidence for the presence of gases (He) from the Earth's mantle, which is not too surprising in volcanic areas. The lake water also contains some tritium (3H, radioactive hydrogen). Tritium is a product of fusion reactions, but other sources are prominent in the environment. The proponents of geo-fusion now look for evidence of tritium fluxes from the deep Earth to support their idea. And Jiang and co-authors think they found it in our old papers! Gee, if these guys win the Nobel Prize with this discovery, they owe me something!

Have we been stupid not to see the signs of geo-fusion in our data? I don't think so. I rather think that the claims made by Jiang et al. are pure fantasy. They interpret small increases of tritium concentrations with depth in these lakes as evidence for a flux of tritium from the lake bottom. But there are much simpler explanations, most importantly that the surface water is being diluted by the recent input of low-tritium water. The data are from the 1990s, when tritium in precipitation was clearly decreasing with time, so many lakes would show such "reversed" tritium profiles. And the one volcanic crater lake where there is an isolated deep water that shows the signature of the subsurface input, Lac Pavin in France, actually shows very low tritium in that deep water. Jiang et al. even cite one of our papers on Lac Pavin, but they do not mention the low tritium there, as it does not fit their theory.

I do not want to write a review of the Jiang paper here. It would be devastating. I wonder, however, how such a controversial paper can be published apparently without proper review. The entire argument is based on data of our papers. It would be natural to invite one of us as a reviewer. I am quite sure this did not happen, as none of us would have accepted this manuscript. Obviously the authors have no expertise on lake physics and tritium in the environment. Otherwise, it would be clear that the presented evidence is extremely spurious, at best.

So, once again, my confidence in the quality of the scientific literature is shattered. This case is probably less severe (and certainly of lesser political importance) than that of the papers by Chilingar and colleagues, but is shows the same failure of the review system. So, yes, there is enough junk science out there to be debunked. But unfortunately, the one website that claims to do this in reality attacks serious science and only produces more junk.

I do my best to uncover some of the junk that falls along my way. But its a gigantic Sisyphus task. If this is the state of confusion humanity is into, then good night...

1 comment:

  1. Blame the editors. Given that the paper depended on your work, they should have sent it to you for review. The base problem is that for papers that depend on out of field research the editors in a specialized journal don't have a clue about who to send it to