On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell made one of the most colossal technical
mistakes in modern history. He delivered a speech making various claims
about WMD intelligence in Iraq. He later called this "the lowest point in my
life." A presidential commission that investigated the intelligence found
that most of the speech was "dead wrong." See:

http://articles.cnn.com/2005-08-19/world/powell.un_1_colin-powell-lawrence-wilkerson-wmd-intelligence

At the time of the speech I thought it sounded plausible. I assumed it was
true. I had great respect for Colin Powell. In the weeks leading up to the
invasion I wondered why US intelligence did not simply tell the UN
inspectors in Iraq where to find the WMDs. By the time the invasion came I
suspected the intelligence must be wrong. I did not know what to make of it.
Later I learned that many experts realized the intelligence was wrong  and
tried to alert authorities before the invasion. For example, retired Los
Alamos physicists told authorities that the aluminum tubes could not be used
for centrifuges, and they could only be for rocket launchers as the Iraqis
claimed.

I have long been fascinated by event such as this, such as the run-up to the
First World War, the British invasion of Gallipoli in 1915, the Three Mile
Island accident and the Fukushima accident.  In these instances, competent,
distinguished well-trained experts made astounding mistakes. They did things
which you or I or any amateur would instantly recognize as idiotic mistakes.
They made not just one big mistake but dozens of terrible mistakes over many
years.

This is particularly clear in the case of the Three Mile Island accident as
described in the book by D. F. Ford. The plant control system design was
wretched. Similar accidents had occurred with other Babcock and Wilcox
reactors, and a government inspector was warning the authorities it was
likely to reoccur. The accident could have been prevented easily. The plant
operators on duty at the time of the accident were so woefully untrained
they did not know (for example) what a steam table is or why it is important
to keep the water pressurized, or that pressurizing it prevents boiling.
(The operators' actions did contribute to the accident, but they were not to
blame because they were doing what their procedures manual told him to do,
and even after the experts arrived it was not until much later that anyone
understood what was happening inside the reactor.) In retrospect there were
so many problems the accident was inevitable, and it is only surprising that
it did not happen sooner.

As far as I can tell from accounts released so far, the accident at
Fukushima was not caused by a long chain of stupid mistakes made over many
years. The biggest mistakes were building the seawall only 5.7 m tall, and
putting the diesel fuel tanks where they were struck by the tsunami.
However, 5.7 m is pretty high for a seawall in Japan. Very few tsunamis
would have overcome that. So perhaps this does not resemble the
other fiascoes listed above. It does show how experts can panic and make
mistakes in response to a crisis, such as letting a generator run out of
fuel, and not thinking to break holes in the walls to vent hydrogen after
the first explosion. They have now made large holes in the walls of the
reactor buildings that did not explode. These people were working night and
day amidst chaos, heat, smoke, fire, intense deadly radiation and gigantic
explosions, so such mistakes are understandable and must be forgiven. Colin
Powell was working in peace at his desk, with the best experts at his beck
and call, so his mistakes are less forgivable.

I have often said that we can trust experts such as Levi, Kullander and
Essen. But can we? Is it possible they too are making colossal technical
mistakes, like the ones Colin Powell made? Or could they be making the kind
of mistake the designers of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge made? The bridge was
destroyed by wind induced vibrations, a kind of resonance frequency problem
that had never been encountered with a suspension bridge before. A similar
problem destroyed two Lockheed 188 Electra airplanes in 1959 and 1960.
Engineers cannot think of everything, try as they might.

The only way to be certain Levi et al. are not make a mistake is to have
many other people repeat the experiments, with many different instrument
types. Or to sell many reactors and have customers confirm that they work.
That amounts to the same thing.

This is why replication is so important in many fields of science. Note that
the principle of independent replication is less important in chemistry, and
nonexistent in engineering. The ENIAC computer proved that electronic
computers can exist. No one doubted it for a moment after that; no one
demanded independent replication. In a famous incident in the history of
semiconductors, at a conference the engineers who developed the first
silicon semiconductors demonstrated them by immersing circuit board into a
pot of boiling vegetable oil. The circuit continued to function. The people
watching this demonstration bolted from the room to call their offices and
report that silicon does work, and it works at higher temperatures than any
other semiconductor. No one questioned these results or demanded an
independent test.

In aviation and space exploration, no one demands a second country send a
robot explorer to Mars before they believe the first one is actually
working.

In my opinion, the Rossi demonstrations are closer to engineering than basic
science, so there is little reason to doubt they are real. The only way they
could be fraudulent would be if Levi and E&K and the others have agreed to
go along with the scam. Or, as I said, if it turns out they are incredibly
stupid people.

The historic fiascoes I listed above were not perpetrated by incredibly
stupid people. On the contrary, Colin Powell and some of the WWI generals
were  smart, highly capable and experienced. They did many similar previous
jobs impeccably well. So, even though Levi and Kullander are (probably --
presumably) experts in energy, how do we know they have not made a terrible
mistake in this instance. How do we know they are not doing calorimetry
without knowledge of wet versus dry steam, and flow calorimetry with an
undetected error of a factor of 1000, or 5, as Beene claims. How can we be
sure? The answer is: We cannot be sure, but it is unlikely, and such
mistakes are quite different from the ones made by Colin Powell and the WWI
generals.

Colin Powell was dealing with a difficult problem. A huge, inchoate problem
with undefined edges and countless unknowns. He was pressed for time. War
was looming; emotions were at fever pitch. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers
were waiting to invade. Levi is dealing with one of the simplest problems
anyone who works with energy can encounter. He is dealing with a system that
has been well understood for 200 years -- a system which is designed to be
as easy to analyze as any energy system can be. That is why he decided to do
the experiment with this technique. This is the opposite of the Tacoma
Narrows Bridge built into the unknown: it is as well understood and well
defined as any physical system can be. Unlike Powell, Levi had all the time
in the world. He spent weeks calibrating and testing before he said
anything, and before the Jan. 14 demonstration -- which is what any good
experimentalist would do.

I have known excellent programmers who spent months or years on projects
that turned out to be dreadful mistakes, producing infuriating programs. (I
have done that myself, I am sorry to admit.) These people did not make
mistakes in detail. They did not make amateur mistakes. They did not forget
how to name variables or make variables that should have been local into
global ones. They made large errors because they were dealing with large,
complicated systems and problems they had never encountered before. Indeed,
problems that no one had ever encountered before.

If Levi had designed a factory or nuclear power plant as complicated as the
Three Mile Island plant, or an experiment as complicated as one of the big
CERN colliders, of course he might make gigantic errors. One of the CERN
colliders was disabled by melting magnets and faulty electronics, as I
recall.

On rare instances, experts do make simple, one-off, stupid mistakes such as
the design of the lens in the Hubble telescope. It can happen. But in the
case of the Rossi device tests they would have to make not one but several
mistakes as bad as the Hubble lens, with both flow calorimetry and steam
calorimetry. Other people who have tested the system in Italy and in the US
would also have to make many huge, simple, inexplicable mistakes. I think
this is extremely unlikely. If that could happen, then everyday run-of-the
mill engineering would fail drastically everywhere you turn. Streetlights
would explode, and buildings would collapse dozens of times a day. Generally
speaking, machines in our civilization do work reliably, because the
engineers, technicians, and the people who put up those streetlights know
what they are doing. You can depend on them. You trust them with your life
every hour of every day.

- Jed

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