The Fire of the Gods
In which a highly irregular event occurs at the United States Patent Office;
and in which the author first discovers the controversy of the hydrino atom.
In 1846, the general hospital of Vienna was in the midst of an epidemic. Childbed fever, a disease which affected delivering mothers and their infants, was widespread at the time but especially potent at the hospital, where it killed 459 women that year. The disease had been known since antiquity, and there were many theories as to its cause, yet still it raged on.
The next year, a new assistant of obstetrics, Ignaz Semmelweis, arrived and took an interest in the disease. He apprenticed himself to practitioners who were beginning to understand medicine from a modern scientific perspective. Ignaz was open to these ideas, dedicated to a cause, and, as it turns out, fearless in his ability to reject bad ideas of prior thinkers while looking for fresh insight. He sifted through hospital records. He spent week after week in the morgue.
When a friend and mentor was accidentally pierced in the finger with a knife during an autopsy, and later died from symptoms similar to childbed fever, Semmelweis conjectured that perhaps invisible ``cadaverous'' particles had been transmitted into his body from that of the fever victim on the table. Perhaps the disease was transmissible, but not contagious by conventional means.
It was routine for university students to perform autopsies on cadavers at the hospital and, often in the same day, meet with patients at the laying-in ward. Semmelweis quickly put an end to this and instituted new procedures for washing hands and bedding in a chloride of lime, a solution hitherto used for removing odors.
Within a year, incidence of fever had sharply declined in reaction to the new method. Semmelweis's progress was celebrated by his colleagues at the hospital. The disease lingered, but the parishioner‘s bell was seldom heard in the ward; new mothers and their infants were returning to their homes flush with the joy of new life. Vienna, already an attraction for students and practitioners, was poised to become the epicenter of a new way of doing medicine.
At the conclusion of Semmelweis's two year assistantship, the director of the laying-in hospital fired him.
* * *
In the course of history, there are moments when one individual rises above his or her peers with a fresh understanding of nature, overturning years of thought, to usher in a new era of technological advance. We would like to believe that, as a society, we are able to quickly absorb new discoveries, but in fact the barrier is high. First, we must recognize when a discovery has been made, and second, we must be willing to accept it.
Serendipitous events are often ignored until there is a good theory to explain them. They may be absorbed ad hoc by the dominant theory, revealing that just as the human body defends itself from disease, established ideas defend themselves from disconfirming evidence. When a new theory does emerge, it must compete with its predecessors, sometimes with extraordinary effort by those few who are willing to undertake unpopular research. Major discoveries are by nature disruptive; the more disruptive, the more reluctantly we accept them.
Semmelweis struggled against the inertia of ideas held by older practitioners. He was in a mix of social and political tensions in Vienna. And he carried a message that no one wanted to believe: that doctors carried death on their hands. Somehow, his ideas were communicated poorly, misunderstood, and in the eyes of his peers, quickly debunked. Like a stone skipping off the surface of a pond, his ideas were rejected, even while he perfected his technique and virtually eliminated the fever from his wards.
As decades went by, Semmelweis was consumed by frustration and lashed out in anguish and spite at his fellow practitioners. It was not until after his death, thirty years after his initial discovery that the medical community came around.
Thirty years of broken families, thirty years of heartbreak.
We might call this the 'Semmelweis Effect,' when an idea meets fierce and seemingly irrational resistance and is forgotten for a generation.
It is painful to realize that this happens time and again in modern science; each case due to a unique combination of circumstance and bias. It is more painful to accept that it may be happening now, today, in our scientifically enlightened age. Perhaps, we are still learning how to do science.
Our scientific community has grown, and so has the volume of scientific publications. In the daily barrage of new ideas, we have learned to make fast judgments on incomplete information using a variety of context-sensitive clues. These heuristics may work for the slow advancement of science along predictable lines, but not unusual cases.
If a major discovery presents in the wrong context, it may be ignored, the discoverer deemed a fool.
It is perhaps for some of these reasons that Randell Mills has had such trouble.
* * *
On March 1, 2000, Jeff Melcher stood outside the courtroom of the United States Federal Circuit Court. He set down his briefcase and loosened his tie. He was exhausted. His client, Randell Mills, had filed one of the longest patents in US history, containing 499 claims, each claim adding to the breadth and scope of an invention that would rank either among the most important, or most infamous, in the history of the US Patent Office.
The patent had been issued, but the fallout had just begun.
Melcher had been the only patent attorney at his firm willing to take on Mills's project. Mills spoke of a new fundamental source of energy and a new theory of the physics of the atom. He even spoke of a new kind of atom, a sort of shrunken hydrogen atom that he called a hydrino, an atom that the prevalent theory of atomic physics - quantum mechanics - said should not exist.
The history of the patent office is rife with cases of applications for inventions based on flawed, discredited, or mystical theories, ones that violate physical laws, authored by individuals who are deluding themselves or defrauding others.
Energy technologies top this list: from gas-mileage enhancing fuel-additive cocktails or super-carburetors to undisguised ``perpetual motion'' machines, which (conceivably) once started could generate energy forever.
The history of false patents and techno-mythical inventions is long and entertaining: pulsed electromagnetic motors that give 500% efficiency; motors that convert static electricity to DC power; motors that are motionless, or claim to use magnetic fields in mysterious ways; those that use particles (N-rays, G-rays) that don't exist; those that produce power from time itself by way of gyroscopes and pendulums; or from space itself such as Zero-Point Energy or the Aether Electric Accumulator.
And my favorite: a ``Cosmic'' energy source, which legend tells was dumped into a river. And therefore lost to man.
These technologies have their advocates; after all, if it has been written, it must be true. Though these were allegedly patented or demonstrated to someone, they never had a chance: those that were not stolen, classified by government, bought out by big oil interests, or dumped into rivers, are—at the very least—ignored.
And for good reason. We have a sharp sensitivity to “fringe” physics. If you are making energy in a new way, making new kinds of materials, manufacturing diamonds, or demonstrating anti-gravity; if you are not highly credentialed in your field, or are in business for yourself, or being ignored by your peers for unknown reasons; if you are struggling to publish, struggling to patent, but finding investors and occasional positive press: you are, my friend, a crackpot.
Mills had a history of making claims to the press about a new power source that would make energy cheap, clean, and abundant. He often claimed this would be unveiled in a matter of months, or maybe a year or two, but by the year 2000, ten years had already gone by without a product. He justified his technology with a theory that was often waved off as nonsense by Nobel Laureates.
The scientific community ignored and ridiculed the man, whom one could easily mark as a lonely fool caught up in his own infinite energy fantasy. Many did not glance twice at Mills.
But those who did found something unusual.
Mills was flush with tens of millions in venture capital from private sources that included energy utilities, which he funneled into a large laboratory just outside Princeton, New Jersey. Working for him there was a team of PhD scientists, including highly trained specialists in plasma physics, microwave physics, electrochemistry, and chemical engineering, with backgrounds in industry and academia. His company, named BlackLight Power (BLP) (now Brilliant Light Power) after the ultraviolet light produced by his reaction cells, was becoming a factory of experimental research. With his team, Mills was publishing dozens of papers presenting evidence of the formation of hydrogen atoms with electron orbits smaller than was previously believed to be possible.
Mills reported significant heat gains from his small prototype reactor cells. He also reported spectroscopic evidence such as light emissions from the reactors as well as unique signatures of hydrino atoms and molecules.
These results were not something that could be easily explained away, unless they were the result of gross scientific incompetence, or truly fabricated in an act of wholesale fraud. Mills's papers were climbing a slow and agonizing ladder of reputability and were appearing in better known scientific journals. He was an idea-entrepreneur, conducting basic research for the purpose of technological advancement, and making strides where it counted, in the research literature.
But Mills had promised the world a power generator based on his discovery and he was long overdue on his promise. Critics were skeptical that Mills would ever deliver; many assumed he was a fool, or a fraud, or both; few bothered to look at the data, and those who did assumed some conventional explanation had to exist.
The patent office had already developed a thick skin for frivolous inventions when the 1989 rise – and fall - of cold fusion elevated the situation to a crisis. While scandal unraveled the saga of cold fusion, a river of applications flowed into the office from researchers claiming power production from alleged nuclear reactions occurring in small, bench-top electrochemical cells. Mills, who began work at the same time using similar experimental equipment, was easily lost in the noise.
Suffice it to say, everyone in Melcher's office knew that it would be a firestorm, an all-consuming battle for scientific legitimacy, even if Mills was right.
Mills's first patent applications took two years to work their way through the requirements of the examiners. His case files included thousands of pages of supplementary material filled with his own experimental studies and outside scientific literature backing up his claims.
The two examiners of record in charge of Mills's case, Stephen Kalafut and Wayne Langel, were initially skeptical, but after reviewing Mills's data, they were both convinced. They allowed Mills's first patent, ``Lower Energy Hydrogen Methods and Structures,'' number 6,024,935, containing 499 claims, to successfully issue on February 15th, 2000.
BLP had several more patent applications in queue, and the next, number 09/009.294, was due to issue days later, on February 28th, as patent number 6,030,601. Mills received a letter that the patent would be issued, and paid the required fee.
However, a few days later, he received a notice that his patent was being withdrawn, with no explanation. Mills was also notified that the review process for his five other pending applications would effectively start over.
It may have been the first time in the history of the patent office that a patent was rejected after it had been issued a number and the fee had been paid. The resulting `ghost' patent would even appear in the monthly periodical of granted patents issued by the office.
When Jeff Melcher began to investigate, he found the patent examiners themselves were furious. While they technically held full authority over the granting of the patents, their supervisors had held some kind of unofficial review, and the decision had come down to reject the patents. They also said they were asked to lie so that it would appear they agreed with the decision. One of the examiners took himself off the case in protest. They didn't know who was now in charge of Mills's applications, the reasons for the rejection, or whom at the patent office the scientists at BLP needed to convince.
Two years of work had been swept clean; Melcher was facing an unnamed opponent. He sighed. The storm was not over yet.
* * *
Nick Wheeler is a crumpled man with a large head and a slow swagger, a professor of physics at Reed College, whose shiny scalp is so prominent that his body seems hung from his powerful brain. He walks through the hallway with eyes unfocused as students spill around him; he sees only the infinity of time; he is as old as the universe; he was there when the foundations of the physics building were laid, and they were laid around him.
Standing outside Wheeler's office, I peer in to see him sitting amidst high shelves of books, bathed in the light of a nearby window.
I knock; there is no answer.
I wait, then knock again.
Still nothing as seconds tick away.
I venture in, around a set of open shelves, and come up behind him.
I am within inches of the man's tweed jacket. I reach out my hand to touch his shoulder, and hesitate. Changing my mind, I escape out of the office unseen.
It was September of 2001. I was in my first week at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I was wooed by the population of intelligent and weirdly obsessed students, and by the school's deep commitment to a ``life of the mind'' enjoyed on sprawling green lawns.
The school is liberal, but the curriculum is staunchly conservative in the academic sense: all students participate in a traditional core curriculum grounded in works of philosophy, history, and literature, going back to ancient Greece and Rome. Knowledge changed slowly at Reed.
I was excited to be there, and on the first day of orientation, I spent three hours in philosophical debate with a fellow student while walking the sunny streets of downtown Portland, before, as we were about to part, remembering to introduce ourselves.
When I reentered Wheeler's office some minutes later, he spun about in his office chair and leaned back to inspect me. His eyes peered through heavy spectacles, his silver hair was pushed back over a balding scalp stamped with the imprint of time. With a friendly gentleness he invited me to sit.
I pulled out a heavy black book with a gold-embossed logo on the front that consisted of a triangle with a circle inscribed within it and arrows drawn on the points - it resembled the emblem of a space-dwelling civilization more than a company logo. The cover read The Grand Unified Theory of Classical Quantum Mechanics by Randell Mills (Mills, 1990). Wheeler looked at it skeptically and took it. I began to tell him the story.
The book had sat on my shelf for a year, as I finished high school and set my sights on Reed. It was the theoretical treatise in which Mills presented his new theory of the atom, one that predicted the existence of hydrinos, but also described the structures of other atoms, molecules, and fundamental particles. It proposed elegant solutions to fundamental, century-old problems in physics. It even offered a revision to Einstein’s theory of gravity, and Mills claimed that he had completed Einstein’s quest to unify the forces of physics.
It was a theory of nature, and if true, we have not seen the likes of it since Newton or Darwin.
A NASA engineer named Luke Setzer had set up an online message group to discuss Mills's theories, called the Hydrino Study Group. It was a magnet for those who wanted to talk about the topic, whether layman or seasoned physicist, supporter or critic.
For a few years, Mills participated in the discussion. Debates on the forum often concerned some theoretical or experimental detail, and I watched the conversations unfold to get a clue of the forces at play.
My impression was that there were few serious academics on the forums, but many with an electrical engineering degree struggling to work through subtle details.
I was most surprised to find that there were critics (such as Peter Zimmerman, from the US State Department, but several more who were anonymous) who trolled the forum for years, posting almost daily, yet didn't seem to have any real interest in Mills's work. They had not yet bothered to grasp the specifics of Mills's theoretical claims, and were uninterested in scrutinizing published experimental data, except by imagining ways in which it could be forged.
Mills himself was a question mark. He remained aloof but was willing to respond to highly technical questions. His posts would give clarifications or corrections, often with direct quotes and references to his publications, or supporting literature.
Beyond the forum, secondary literature on Mills's work was scarce. The media was varied and often of poor quality. Erik Baard, reporting for New York City's Village Voice, wrote a series of articles about BLP from 1999-2002. He surveyed well-known scientists for opinions on Mills. The reactions were brief, emotional, and sweepingly dismissive.
Dr. Phillip Anderson, a Nobel Laureate in physics at Princeton University, said to the press: ``If you could fuck around with the hydrogen atom, you could fuck around with the energy process in the Sun. You could fuck around with life itself'' (Baard, 1999a).
From theoretical physicist Michio Kaku: ``the only law that this business with Mills is proving is that a fool and his money are easily parted.'' From Steven Chu (later Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration), ``it's extremely unlikely that this is real, and I feel sorry for the funders, the people who are backing this'' (Baard, 1999a, 1999b). Howard Georgi, professor of physics at Harvard, called it ``just silliness.''
One of the most vocal critics, Robert Park, the public spokesman for the American Physical Society in DC, said ``There is virtually nothing that science does not know about the hydrogen atom... [The hydrino] has no credibility whatever'' (Reuters, 1997).
But Mills was attracting energy utilities who were looking for a competitive edge in a recently deregulated market, and convincing those who were willing to look at his work in depth.
Investors included Conectiv, an energy utility, whose senior vice president David Blake wound up on BLP's board. He told a reporter: ``We're past the scientific verification stage. The talk now is about commercial applications'' (Baard, 1999a).
Executives at Eastbourne Capital Management put in five million dollars after in-depth due diligence with PacifiCorp, a utility in Oregon (Baard, 2000).
BLP had also met with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, to discuss the possibility of a billion dollar initial public offering.
Mills was attracting board members that any tech-startup would die for, including Aris Melissaratos, former director of Westinghouse's Science and Technology Center, and Shelby Brewer, a nuclear engineer and physicist who was Assistant Secretary of Energy under the Reagan Administration. Brewer had seen many inviable energy schemes over the years, and lent his support to Mills after cautious due diligence. ``I'm convinced that there is something of enormous impact here and it's only a question of time until we can garner the capital and infrastructure to take it into commercialization'' he said (Baard, 1999a).
Tom Cassel of Reading Energy was warned by an Ivy League professor that ``these types of people are dangerous,'' but when he investigated the theory and experiments himself, was convinced that Mills's work could be on the magnitude of a scientific revolution (Baard, 1999a).
Was Mills blinding those with dollar signs in their eyes?
Or were physicists blinded by a fear of new realities?
From the discovery of the electron in 1900 to roughly 1925, physicists sought a model for understanding the atom that was based on the physical laws known at the time, now known as the classical laws of nature. These laws, familiar on the scale of everyday life, include the laws of electricity and magnetism (Maxwell's equations) and Newton’s mechanics. These laws presented a vision of a clear, deterministic universe, and physicists expected that the atom would behave accordingly.
But physicists were unable to explain the behavior of the atom in classical terms. In 1925, a revolution in thought occurred. Physicists invented quantum mechanics.
This described particles in terms of probabilities, in a highly mathematical scheme that remained somewhat agnostic about the underlying physics. It didn't speak the same language as classical laws, and it was the beginning of a rift that would divide the foundations of our knowledge. On the one hand, the familiar physics on the macroscale, and on the other, the weird world of the quantum.
Central to quantum mechanics was the problem of the hydrogen atom. With one electron orbiting one proton, it was simple enough to be one of the few scenarios that a quantum physicist could solve exactly, without any approximations.
By this I mean that the theoretical model used to calculate observable properties of the hydrogen atom (such as the frequencies at which it absorbs and emits light) produced numbers that corresponded very well to experimental findings. As a result, the hydrogen atom became an exemplary problem in quantum mechanics, the center of an entire body of knowledge.
And it was the hydrogen atom that came under attack by Mills.
His theory was classical.
Against the backdrop of a scientific community obsessed with strings in eleventh-dimensional space and multiple universes, Mills returned to the questions that faced the physicists of 1925: Why is the atom stable? How does the electron move? He approached them afresh, as if classical laws had not withered on the vine.
It is well known that the electron in the atom can jump between orbits (so-called ``quantum'' jumps), by absorbing and emitting discrete frequencies of light. But there exists an orbit that the electron in any atom cannot fall below (this is known as the ``ground state'') and why it is stable has never been clearly understood. It is a feature that classical atomic theorists such as Bohr struggled to understand.
Mills's theory used the latest advances in electrodynamics to understand the stability of the ground state. But Mills also predicted that under certain conditions, the electron of a hydrogen atom may occupy a lower orbit than the ground state. Instead of jumping to this orbit by releasing light, the hydrogen atom must collide with another atom, called a catalyst, and exchange energy in a process known as resonant coupling. The catalyst must be able to absorb just the right amount of energy in the process of ejecting electrons or breaking chemical bonds.
According to Mills, the electron in the hydrogen atom then releases light as it falls to an orbit that is an integer fraction (1/2, 1/3, 1/4... etc.) of the ground state, forming what Mills named a hydrino.
Since the electron and proton attract, you must release energy from the electron orbit in order to produce a hydrino state. The release is predicted to be substantial; not as great as nuclear energy, but far greater than that yielded from chemical combustion.
And what of the hydrino itself? Mills began to explore its commercial usefulness in a host of new hydrino hydrides with unusual properties.
Mills's astonishing claims piled up: he had made a historic discovery in physics, discovered a new, potentially limitless energy source, and opened up a new field of hydrogen chemistry.
But the idea struck at the heart of a theory that had been around for eighty years, that had been labored over by thousands of physicists, that had been described repeatedly as the most successful theory of all time. Physicists snarled at the thought of overturning quantum mechanics; its inventors—Heisenberg, Born, Pauli, Schrödinger, Dirac—are gods of physics. To question them is heresy.
Playing offense as well as defense, Mills rallied against the contradictions inherent in quantum theory, and the fuzzy and often confusing picture of the world that has forced scientists to question everything from causality to an objective world outside our skulls. Mills also argued the unbelievable – that quantum was simply a bad theory.
After all, the world has changed since 1925. We look out into space and see mysteries everywhere: dark matter, dark energy, the neutrino imbalance of the Sun, the diffuse emissions of galaxies, and the tempo of quasars.
Quantum mechanics was always a struggle to apply to systems more complex than hydrogen, and it has been at an utter loss to explain some simple experiments such as electron bubbles trapped in liquid helium. The theory has waned, its technological potential gone sterile, yet its philosophical controversies linger endlessly on.
I began to perceive Mills's ideas as conservative; instead of advocating some weird new physics, he advocated a return to established classical laws of Newton and Maxwell. He portrayed quantum theory as new and suspect, unproven and full of holes.
When Mills started a company to develop his idea, it was a bold move. He did so, as Shelby Brewer put it, ``without largess from the US government, and without benediction of the US scientific priesthood'' (Brewer).
In 1901, scientists believed that commercial interests tainted the purity of science; they toasted the discovery of the electron by saying ``let it prove no commercial value.'' Though we live in an age of electronics, the vestiges of that attitude remain today in a distrust between business and academia. Mills, perhaps inadvertently, was drawing a line in the sand.
But it allowed him to raise money without the National Science Foundation, to the frustration and perhaps envy of his peers.
Robert Cava, a materials scientist commenting on Mills, told a reporter: ``...when someone comes along and makes a big splash without going through the rigor of peer review, it makes us think that the guy has no business doing it'' (Baard 2002).
In time, Mills became too busy with his own theoretical and experimental work to worry much about academia, and academia returned the favor.
But the question at the heart of the issue was unresolved: Does the hydrino exist?
Is Mills a modern-day Prometheus, bringing fire down from the gods?
I was 17 when I discovered the controversy and decided to proceed with eyes open, to understand the science and the issues, and make up my own mind. At stake was everything: new technological possibilities and new ways of looking at the universe.
When I presented the book to Nick Wheeler, he agreed to take a look. A few days later he called me back to his office. Flipping it open, he briefly pointed out that while it had very thorough citations (often a rule of thumb to gauge whether a scientist has done his research), he could not make any sense of it. He nonchalantly snapped it closed and tossed it back with assurances that as I proceeded with my education, I would learn to understand the topic myself, and would soon reject it.
Perhaps Mills’s theories were bunk. But there was something about the way Wheeler disposed of the topic that told me he was either unable or unwilling to engage it completely.
I put the book back on the shelf, and over the next several years, I occasionally came back to it. By studying both physics and chemistry, I was arming myself with the tools to understand both the theories and experiments.
Contrary to Wheeler's prediction, as my understanding grew, so did my interest.
I sought out a local professor in electrical engineering, Reinhart Engelmann, who was working at the Oregon Health and Science University and had voiced his support for Mills's work (Engelmann, 1996). Engelmann and I would sit down occasionally and go over his thoughts and criticisms about Mills's theory. His comments were insightful and complex, revealing to me that some physicists took Mills seriously.
After three years of undergraduate work I applied for a summer internship at BLP. I had the opportunity to do experimental work in the lab and work closely with Mills, and I extended my stay to over a year.
After returning to Reed with renewed enthusiasm, I again tried to bring Mills's ideas to professors. But it would always end up the same. I would leave their office with an emptiness that made me realize that not all scientists had the curiosity Newton once described as, ``only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.''
Had they lost their spirit of discovery?
Or was this stuff really junk?
Perhaps I was just a self-deceiving pawn of a perpetual-motion ploy, a follower of a charismatic but irrational leader, my inexperience and desire for Mills to be right clouding my perception of the facts.
``I once had a student who claimed she was from Venus,'' Wheeler said some months later. He let the thought drop with the heaviness of implication, and I bit my lip.
* * *
After twenty-five years, Mills's story is, like that of Semmelweis, a complex enigma sewn in layers of history, sociology, and politics.
Here I will explore Mills’s theories and discoveries, critics and collaborators, legal battles and technological efforts. I will set his story against questions fundamental to progress in science: How do we identify major discoveries? Good science from bad? Great minds from peddling fools? Why are we bound by the inertia of past beliefs?
We may find that in our pursuit of science, we carry with us the baggage that is human nature, with its hopes and dreams, biases and frailties, and burst of genius that push us forward to a better future.