IN THE REVERED NAME OF ACADEMIC freedom, universities tolerate faculty members who are avowed communists and lifelong fascists, outspoken racists and anti-Semites, radical lesbians and rabid homophobes. But alchemists? At Texas A&M University, the chemistry department is in turmoil over whether to draw the line at a researcher who accepted $200,000 from a benefactor to research ways to transform base metals into gold. In a recent letter, 15 chemistry professors demanded that John Bockris, electrochemist turned aspiring alchemist, resign. As two university panels prepare to report on the decidedly nonstandard research and on how the school could accept money for something that has been discredited for 300 years, the whole thing, says A&M spokeswoman Nancy Sawtelle, "has become an embarrassment."
Or at least a measure of how desperate academic scientists are for funding. In 1992 Joe Champion, a self-styled inventor, approached Bockris with an idea for transmuting lesser metals into gold and silver. Even better, he came bearing gifts: $200,000 for research and testing from a California financier named William Telander. The money landed in A&M's till, and Bockris and Champion--on campus as an unpaid "guest worker"--were off and running. In one experiment, they fired radio waves at base metals, but that approach lacked the Midas touch. In a second technique, they mixed potassium nitrate (a component of gunpowder) in a coffee can with carbon and various salts, then burned it at high temperatures. In four separate experiments, says Bockris, this produced small amounts of gold. But when other scientists in Bockris's lab tried more than 20 times to reproduce the stunning result, they failed. Ramesh Bhardwaj, who used to be an associate research assistant for Bockris and is now in private industry, believes the "successful" experiments were faked. "That's why it worked [only] when Champion was around," he told NEWSWEEK.
Four years ago Bockris, 70, championed the coldfusion claims of Martin Fleischmann, his longtime friend, and Stanley Pons, the University of Utah electrochemists who said that they mimicked the nuclear reaction that makes the sun burn in a simple, room-temperature, tabletop apparatus. Bockris reported that his own cold-fusion experiments produced heat and tritium (an isotope of hydrogen that serves as a footprint of fusion). Colleagues were skeptical and publicly critical. Bockris defends his current work as "very serious and very advanced research into low-energy nuclear change in condensed media...I am not inclined to magic."
As a practical matter, Bockris may soon be out of the lead-into-gold business. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles have charged financier Telander with defrauding 380 investors of $7.8 million in a foreign-currency exchange scam. in response, A&M froze the 832,000 that Bockris had not yet spent. Last month State Superior Court in Arizona sentenced Champion to one year in prison in a felony-theft case. These guys are enough to give alchemy a bad name.