Clever Apes #12: Seeking the grail

May 11, 2011

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For a moment, it seemed like a holy grail was within reach. (137 Films)

Scientists love a quest, and so does the media. Just about every field has some “holy grail” or other. A database search for just the last six months shows about a thousand instances of this phrase popping up in relation to science. They refer to: stem cells, a zebrafish gene switch, a pregnant sturgeon, vegetation structure data, a fabricated brain, variable valve timing in combustion engines, tolerance-immune drugs, lab chimps and a recipe for royal jelly. Among many, many others.

Remember the good old days, back in ancient Rome, when there was just one grail to worry about? It's become enough of a cliché, in fact, that the prestigious journal Nature has supposedly banned its use (though see the royal jelly link above to disprove that one). But the idea of the holy grail still can provide a little window into how science works. On this week's Clever Apes, we consider two cases that have something to teach us about the way cutting-edge science gets done.

The first example may qualify as a quest worthy of Quixote: cold fusion. This is energy produced by nuclear fusion, achieved not in a bomb or a stellar furnace, but at room temperatures. There are some pretty rigid laws of nature that make this particular grail seem unattainable. But it sure is tantalizing: cheap, clean, abundant energy from something like saltwater.

Cold fusion captured the nation's attention in 1989, when two chemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, shocked the world by announcing that they'd found it. Obviously that didn't really work out, but the story of the men behind that spectacle is a fascinating one, told in a forthcoming documentary film called “The Believers.” The title fits well with the religious metaphor of the holy grail, and suggests a revealing paradox about faith and science.

Incidentally, the 137 Films gang's last movie, “The Atom Smashers,” was about another holy grail of physics: the search for the Higgs Boson, or God Particle. That one is still very much at the forefront, and new rumors about its supposed discovery continue to pop up regularly.

Out at Fermilab, where they're searching for the Higgs, cosmologists are also trying to close in on one more holy grail: dark energy. That's the other quest we consider in this round of Clever Apes. At the moment, the stuff makes up more than two-thirds of the universe and may ultimately dilute us all to a thin soup of cold elementary particles … and yet we know almost nothing about it. Our story takes us to the labs and warehouses where scientists are trying to capture maybe the most enigmatic stuff in the universe. If it's stuff at all. 

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