Edison, the archetypal inventor, said, "in truth, we electricians are discoverers, not inventors" (Baldwin, 1995). If Edison is right, inventors sometimes have to discover. For example, when experiments with a glider in 1901 failed to meet expectations, the Wrights constructed a wind tunnel and disconfirmed the widely-accepted value for the coefficient of lift. In order to invent an airplane, they had to discover new coefficients (Crouch, 1992).
In the last chapter, we spoke of the discoverer as hero. Inventors, especially in America, are often painted in the same mythic colors. In both cases, the focus is on the flash of insight that shows the discoverer the key to nature, or the inventor how to transform the world. Although scientific publications and awards now recognize multiple discoverers, the idea of the solitary inventor lies at the basis of the American patent system, and juries in patent disputes are still impressed by stories of solitary inventors who have a flash of insight (Seabrook, January 11, 1993). "A common perception of the inventor includes terms such as weird, individualistic, wild-eyed, odd, socially inept, and quixotic" (Colangelo, Assouline, Kerr, Huesman, & Johnson, 1993, p. 160). Nikola Tesla is the inventor who comes closest to fitting this portrait, with his Wizard-like abilty to produce surprising electrical effects and his eccentric personal habits (Wise, 1994).
In contrast, the 34 agricultural inventors in Colangelo's study were happy, hard-working people whose only eccentricity was that when a problem captured them, they had to put off everything else and work on it. This kind of obsession also characterized Edison, who both tried to cultivate the notion that he was a Wizard and dispel it with remarks like 'invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration'. As he said, "No experiments are useless." (Baldwin, 1995, p. 51).
While scientists may have to invent and inventors discover, one could argue that each is pursuing a different goal. The scientist wants to be able to explain a phenomenon, the inventor simply to produce it, reliably. Children may focus on getting positive results on tasks that simulate scientific reasoning because they adopt an engineering goal, rather than a scientific one: they become more concerned with producing an effect than understanding the mechanisms behind it (Schauble, Klopfer, & Raghavan, 1991).
The same kinds of battles over priority that characterize science also characterize invention, but whereas in the former, disputes are mediated by organizations like the Nobel Prize Committee, in the latter, they are settled by the legal system.
To get a better understanding of the similarities and differences between discovery an invention, we will adopt a case-based approach to understanding invention, spending much of the chapter considering the invention of the telephone in fine-grained detail, then seeing if our conclusions generalize to other inventions and to the discoveries we discussed in the first chapter. Recent research on case-based reasoning and situated and distributed cognition suggests that experts learn from examples (Kolodner, 1993). Instead of treating this cognitive research in a separate chapter, as we did with the cognitive psychology of science, we will review relevant portions of this new work as we consider cases. This is a reflexive application of the case-based approach to a discussion of the case-based approach, and carries with it the dangers we referred to at the beginning of the last chapter. Let us keep that in mind as we go forward.
The reigning paradigm in fusion research involved multi-million dollar technologies like tokamaks, or toroidal magnetic chambers, that achieve temperatures higher than the center of the sun in an effort to fuse hydrogen into helium. The problem is that more energy is used in creating these conditions than results from the fusion. Pons and Fleischmann's experiments at the University of Utah gave hope that fusion could be created and sustained with a few thousand dollars worth of equipment.
Basically, their 'cold fusion tokamak' was an electrolysis cell with a palladium rod down the center, used to separate deuterium from ordinary water. The two researchers knew that palladium has a natural affinity for hydrogen and that the deuterium would therefore migrate into the palladium. They theorized that inside the crystal lattice of the palladium, the hydrogen would be under very high pressure-perhaps enough pressure to produce fusion. Their initial experiments suggested that this palladium cell produced an excess of heat--in one case, enough to cause the cell to explode, fortunately when no one was nearby. Here was a triumph of little science over big science.
Pons and Fleischmann weren't the only researchers to discover cold fusion. Stephen Jones, at rival Brigham Young University, had also conducted experiments that demonstrated cold fusion. Jones found out about Pons and Fleischmann's work when he was asked to referee one of their grant proposals. Initially, both research teams agreed to submit simultaneous papers to Nature. Jones was also about to present his results at a scientific conference, and Pons and Fleischmann felt sure he would be given priority as the discoverer if they did not pre-empt him. Furthermore, they felt that Jones had stolen their idea. Therefore, Pons and Fleischmann decided to announce their discovery at a press conference, rather than in a refereed journal.
These disagreements about priority and credit were intensified by the fact that cold fusion was more than a scientific discovery--it was also an invention that could make the researchers and the universities they worked for wealthy. There were important differences between Jones and Pons and Fleischmann's work that made the former less likely to be an invention than the latter. Jones had detected neutron levels slightly above the background with his cell, suggesting that fusion might be causing the neutron emissions, but at a level too low to be a significant source of power. Indeed, he detected no rise in temperature. Pons and Fleischmann, on the other hand, had detected a significant rise in temperature, but not the concomitant excess of neutrons one would have expected. Nuclear physicists who saw pictures of Pons and Fleischmann standing next to their palladium cell while it was operating said they should have been killed by the radiation. As one scientist noted after seeing a Cable Network News report, "the man explaining the experiment to the reporters was apparently touching the glass bulb containing the active elements and yet none of his bodily parts fell off" (Close, 1991, p. 163).
Scientific teams all over the world set out to replicate Pons and Fleischmann's experiments, but critical details of the procedure were hard to come by, partly because the University was submitting patent applications for the process (Huizenga, 1992). Before Congress, Ronald Ballinger of MIT's Plasma Fusion Center testified that, "The level of detail concerning the experimental procedures, conditions and results necessary for verification of the Fleischmann and Pons results have not been forthcoming. At the same time, almost daily articles in the press, often in conflict with the facts, have raised the public expectations, possibly for naught, that our energy problem has been "solved". We have heard the phrase "too cheap to meter" applied to other forms of electric enery production before. And so the scientific community has been left to attempt to reproduce and verify a potentially major scientific breakthrough while getting the experimental details from The Wall Street Journal and other news publications" (Close, 1991, p. 189). James Brophy of the University of Utah lamented that, "The scientists want us to tell everything but the patent attorneys tell us to say absolutely nothing" (Close, 1991, p. 191). Similarly, Fleischmann argued that "we had written a number of patents by that stage and the view of the university was that we should announce this by a press conference. It was really the patents that were driving this" (Close, 1991).
Withholding information prior to obtaining a patent is standard practice for inventors. Secretiveness prior to annoncement of a discovery is also acceptable for scientists, but once the word is out in a pubic forum, then the details necessary for replication are supposed to be accessible. Promoting 'vaporware' is an acceptable strategy for inventors/entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison or Bill Gates, who make extravagant promises they expect they will be able to fulfill eventually. Perhaps Pons and Fleischmann were doing the scientific equivalent of vaporware.
Of course, the amount of detail required for replication is often the subject of intense negotiation (Collins, 1985; Collins & Pinch, 1993) and this controversy was no exception. Laboratories all over the world tried to get details; in some cases, they ran experiments based on photographs from newspapers and television reports. At first, results from Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and the University of Washington appeared to support cold fusion, but as these researchers searched for alternate explanations, they found serious problems that led them to retract their initial positive findings and other laboratories at MIT, Caltech and other locations weighed in with negative results. Furthermore, Pons and Fleischmann's reluctance to collaborate with other scientists and share data led to attacks on their integrity. Had Pons and Fleischmann stuck with a scientific goal, rather than an inventor's, their reputations might have fared better-- they could then have supplied the details that the scientific community wanted. However, this kind of openness would have made it harder for them to profit from this revolutionary new energy source, if it panned out. To put it in simple terms, failure to replicate a discovery is bad; failure to replicate an invention simply means that the original inventor and her partners have a competitive edge--the longer it takes others to replicate, the better. Pons and Fleischmann' lawyers even threatened to sue over a critical article that appeared in Nature; again, the courts may be an appropriate forum for sorting out inventors' disputes, but not scientists'.
Sorensen and Levold (1992) describe a "situation in which it proved impossible to re-create a particular invention. The second exemplar did not function as the first did. In scientfic terms, this would mean that the claim to having designed this kind of artifact would have been refuted. However, the first example was still working while the second would not! The claim that is refuted is the claim that one is able to re-create the artifact a second time" (p. 30). So from an inventor's perspective, failures to replicate simply meant that the original inventors had tacit knowledge that enabled them to succeed where others failed.
Edison made a similar mistake with his first announcement of the 'etheric force' (Gorman, 1989). In 1875, while conducting experiments on multiple telegraphy, Edison noticed that when the current to an electromagnet was interrupted, sparks could be drawn off a variety of metal objects in the laboratory. Not only did these sparks emerge at a greater distance than any he had seen before, they appeared to have neither a positive nor a negative charge. He thought he had discovered a new physical force, which he labeled etheric because it seemed to travel through the invisible ether that was supposed to carry light waves. Edison was used to announcing his new inventions to the newspapers, often long in advance of their reduction to practice. He did the same with his new discovery, and a sympathetic New York Herald reporter announced that:
The cumbersome appliances transmitting ordinary electricity, such as telegraph poles, insulating knobs, cable-sheathings may be left out...and a great saving of time and labor accomplished. Ocean cables [may be] operated by "etheric force"...The existing methods or mechanisms may be completely revolutionized (Josephson, 1959, p. 129).Note that Edison emphasized the potential inventions to the reporter, not the theoretical implications. The scientific community greeted this new force with skepticism, and the future inventor Elihu Thomson played a crucial role in disconfirming Edison's force when he and Edwin Houston showed that it did carry a charge. Edison dropped his pursuit of the etheric force, and left it to Marconi, Tesla and others to explore the phenomenon of radio waves.
Both Pons & Fleischmann and Edison were more concerned about patent priority than scientific credit, so they risked early announcements of discoveries after a few confirmatory tests. Fleischmann's philosophy was "that if you really don't believe something deeply enough before you do an experiment, you will never get it to work" (Taubes, 1993, p. 118). He might also have added that if the researcher does not believe in a phenomenon, she or he will be unable to persuade funding agencies to back it. Moscovici emphasized that a minority view was most likely to prevail when its advocates adopted a consistent behavioral style, arguing persistently for their point of view (Moscovici, 1974). Rosenwein modified this generalization by pointing out that it is a patterned consistency that is most effective; the minority must be responsive to changes in the situation, including new evidence, without abandoning its central point of view (Rosenwein, 1994). This is akin to Lakatos' observation that scientific research programs rarely modify their hard core ideas, but are willing to alter or abandon corollary assumptions *(Lakatos, 1978).
Pons and Fleischmann did show a kind of patterned consistency, arguing persistently for the existence of cold fusion, but taking account of new evidence by re-interpreting it to fit their view. For example, they did not run a light-water control until they had been challenged at a number of conferences and when they did run it, they found out that both heavy and light water cells produced fusion. They treated this result as a great new discovery. They now had a form of fusion that produced virtually no neutrons and worked with regular water as well as with deuterium, but they were ready to rewrite the laws of nuclear physics rather than abandon their hypothesis. In their case, a confirmation heuristic turned into a bias.
A key element of patterned consistency, according to Rosenwein, is 'playing by the rules': remaining within the community of scientists, rather than splitting-off and joining another community. Pons and Fleischmann acted more like inventors. The point in a patent is to be revolutionary, as different as possible from whatever went before (Myers, 1995). Pons and Fleischnmann were certainly revolutionaries, in the classic Kuhnian sense, but they were never able to produce a working model of a cell that consistently generated power and their anomalies were eventually dismissed as errors.
Additional reference: Sorensen, K. H., & Levold, N. (1992). Tacit networks, heterogeneious engineers, adn embodied technology. Science, technology & human values, 17(1 (Winter)), 13-35.
This page was last edited: Wednesday, July 14, 1999