On Oct. 12, 2005, Joshua Walter, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue under Tsoukalas’ direction, initiated contact with professor Kenneth Suslick, at the University of Illinois.
On Oct. 13, 2005, according to e-mails obtained by New Energy Times in response to a FOIA request, Walter led Suslick to think that the Xu-Butt replication was fraudulent.
A signed and sworn document from Jere Jenkins, the director of Purdue’s radiation laboratories, provides more information.
“I also learned from Josh Walter,” Jenkins wrote, “that Tsoukalas was in direct contact with Seth Putterman and Ken Suslick, two of Taleyarkhan’s known competitors. I knew this because Walter would tell me details about it.”
Walter told Suslick that he thought that Putterman had been given a copy of an unpublished draft of the Tsoukalas group’s replication attempt, which reported a failure to replicate. The e-mail does not state who provided the paper to Putterman.
Original online content only at New Energy Times
On Oct. 14, 2005, Suslick began to coach Walter on how to proceed with fraud allegations and how to diligently preserve documentation. Walter offered to come to Illinois to meet with Suslick. Suslick encouraged him to visit and offered to arrange for the University of Illinois’ ethics officer to attend as a confidential observer and to provide advice. Suslick sent copies of Walter’s e-mails to Putterman. The e-mails do not indicate that Suslick encouraged Walter to contact Purdue’s research integrity officer.
Throughout the conflict, Suslick told many people that Taleyarkhan had committed science fraud. During this time, Taleyarkhan allowed Suslick’s public, destructive comments to go unchallenged. In the absence of an equally aggressive response from Taleyarkhan, members of the public were left with the impression that Suslick, an expert in the field, had evidence for his accusations.
Accusations at Purdue
After signing the wall to memorialize his group’s accomplishment in September 2003, after encouraging his group to present its confirmatory experiments at NURETH in July 2004, and after expressing his enthusiasm to Murray of the BBC in February 2005, and to Venere in July 2005, Tsoukalas did an about-face. Taleyarkhan had become a threat to his political control of the school. The fact that people at Purdue were whispering about fraud on the part of Taleyarkhan, and that Putterman and Suslick were supportive of that conversation was a convenient vehicle for Tsoukalas.
On Nov. 21, 2005, Tsoukalas sent Gore an email accusing Taleyarkhan of research misconduct.
Also on Nov. 21, according to additional FOIA-obtained e-mails, Tsoukalas bypassed university procedures for handling research integrity concerns when he contacted Inspector General Holly Adams and accused Taleyarkhan of research misconduct.
On Jan. 10, 2006, a new paper by the Taleyarkhan group was accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters. The paper announced a new method of nuclear cavitation experiments; more about that below.
On Jan. 13, 2006, professor Martin Bertodano wrote a letter to Mamoru Iishi, a senior professor in the school. Bertodano’s letter included innuendo about Taleyarkhan’s actions and motives. Bertodano also insinuated that the Xu-Butt-Revankar replication reported in France involved research misconduct. Bertodano wrote that the Xu-Butt-Revankar positive replication was reported as independent but, in Bertodano’s opinion, was not independent. Bertodano did not question the validity of the positive data itself. His letter concluded with a reference to the DARPA-sponsored replication attempt by Putterman and Suslick that was under way.
“All this puts our school in a rather bad situation,” Bertodano wrote, “but the situation will get a lot worse in the likely case that Drs. Putterman and Suslick publish a negative result of their confirmatory experiment. If Purdue University begins an investigation of Dr. Taleyarkhan’s experiments after that, and they learn what I just wrote, it will look like we tried to cover it up. I apologize to importune you with this matter, but you are the only member of the faculty that has the authority and the commitment to do something.”
On Jan. 25, 2006, Iishi sent the Bertodano letter to Tsoukalas, along with his own letter.
“His letter indicates his point of view,” Iishi wrote, “but I also heard some rumors from other colleagues along this line.
“In view of the above, I would like to recommend you to form an informal committee to look into this matter and address serious concern raised by professor Bertodano.”
On Jan. 27, 2006, the Taleyarkhan group’s paper, “Nuclear Emissions During Self-Nucleated Acoustic Cavitation,” published in Physical Review Letters. The paper says, “Previously, we have provided evidence [Taleyarkhan et al., Science 2002] for 2.45 MeV neutron emission and tritium production during external neutron-seeded cavitation experiments with chilled deuterated acetone, and these observations have now been independently confirmed [Xu/Butt, Nuclear Engineering & Design, 2005].”
The strife in the school extended far beyond the conflict about Taleyarkhan’s work. There was rampant corruption, according to personal accounts and sworn statements from professors and staff at the school.
The corruption centered around the use or abuse of funds, the advancement or blocking of advancement of junior professors, and the granting or blocking of academic credentials to degree candidates. A number of Purdue professors who felt hopeless at the school, as it was managed under Tsoukalas, left Purdue. One was Sean McDeavitt, who filed a grievance on Feb. 27, 2006, against Tsoukalas.
Taleyarkhan told New Energy Times that, in March 2006, Christine Ladisch, the vice provost for academic affairs, asked him, among other faculty, for input on the matters McDeavitt presented in his grievance.
“A very serious grievance charge was filed against Tsoukalas for gross improprieties by a junior faculty member whose promotion/tenure/existence at Purdue was wrongfully affected by actions of Tsoukalas,” Taleyarkhan wrote, “and I was asked to provide input, which I did along with various other faculty.
“Quite a few of these inputs were negative on Tsoukalas. Upon seeing the inputs, this violently inflamed the situation and advancement of harassment tactics toward me by Tsoukalas and his group.”
Purdue offered McDeavitt a settlement, contingent on a binding agreement to keep secret anything in his grievance. Purdue’s offer was inadequate, as McDeavitt wrote to New Energy Times.
“I withdrew the grievance at Purdue and left the university,” McDeavitt wrote. “I was offered a resolution that I could not accept, and I decided it was in my best interest, and my family’s best interest, to move on. I am now on a real tenure track and therefore would like to minimize my visibility in the media. Rusi was the only one who stood up for me.”
McDeavitt submitted his resignation on June 1, 2006, and left for Texas A&M.
Karen Vierow, another professor in the school, also left Purdue that month and went to Texas A&M.
Revankar tried to leave in April 2005. He interviewed at another university but either didn’t get or didn’t accept an offer.
Solomon retired in September 2006, but he told New Energy Times that he was effectively forced to retire.
Tom Downar, a professor in the school, took a leave of absence from Purdue at the end of fall semester in December 2006 and never returned.
He wrote to Taleyarkhan that month about Revankar’s attempt to leave.
“I suspect that both Tsoukalas and Ishii would prefer to see Shripad leave, but I think it would be devastating to the department,” Downar wrote. “I would take the lead on this, but I need to know that you, Chan [Choi], and Al [Solomon] would support me.”
A former professor who was afraid to be identified told New Energy Times what Downar had advised him.
The professor wrote, “I distinctly recall Tom telling me, ‘These guys are now after not just me but also my students. I have to leave and suggest you do the same.’”
On Feb. 3, 2006, Reich, a freelance reporter working for Nature who was writing a book at the time about science fraud, contacted Tsoukalas and began asking him questions. According to an e-mail from her to Tsoukalas, she became curious after hearing about the Taleyarkhan group’s new paper in Physical Review Letters. She may also have been tipped off about the conflict.
She asked Tsoukalas about the July 12, 2005, Purdue press release that announced the independent replication by Xu and Butt and about the NURETH-11 paper. Thus began a long series of e-mails and phone calls and a warm relationship.
“I would like to confirm that you were responsible for supervising the work of Adam Butt and Yiban Xu on the independent confirmatory experiment,” Reich wrote.
Tsoukalas replied to Reich the same day, writing that he had “absolutely nothing to do with the paper or the work reported.” When Reich asked him to explain the discrepancy, Tsoukalas told Reich that the press release which said that they had “worked under the sponsorship and direction of Lefteri Tsoukalas” was written incorrectly. Tsoukalas did not tell Reich that he had reviewed and approved the draft press release in advance.
Instead, Tsoukalas told her that he “request[ed] that Purdue stop any press releases on sonofusion until truly independent confirmation (outside of Purdue) is obtained.”
On Feb. 6, 2006, Reich replied to Tsoukalas.
“At least if it did turn out to be fraud,” Reich wrote, “I believe you would be protected from the idea of having been complicit.”
Tsoukalas sent Reich a copy of the research misconduct accusations against Taleyarkhan that he had previously e-mailed to Gore and to Adams. Tsoukalas wrote to Reich and painted an urgent and distressing picture. He implied that Taleyarkhan had engaged in science fraud with the Xu-Butt replication.
In her response, Reich explained to Tsoukalas her motivation for the story.
“This is why I became interested in bubble fusion again myself,” Reich wrote. “Last month, I got many press releases from PRL, APS, RPI, and I [previously] thought, no one will cover this again, and then I saw news stories appear, and I thought, uhhhhh, this is now the fourth round of publicity for an unconfirmed result!”
Reich was referring to the new paper by the Taleyarkhan group that was published in Physical Review Letters. In the paper, the Taleyarkhan group introduced a new experimental method that responded to the biggest criticism from their original experimental design, reported in Science in 2002.
Tsoukalas gave to Reich copies of the Oct. 4, 2005, email he had written to Gore in which Tsoukalas said that Butt had no involvement with the research.
Also on Feb. 6, Reich contacted Butt (without Tsoukalas’ advance knowledge) and attempted to fact-check. Butt directly contradicted Tsoukalas. Butt confirmed to Reich that he co-wrote, with Xu, the Nuclear and Engineering Design paper, that the work was part of his master’s thesis, and that, to his knowledge, his name was on the paper from an earlier stage rather than added at the last minute.
In an e-mail to Tsoukalas the same day, Reich informed Tsoukalas that Butt had contradicted him. Here is an excerpt from that e-mail, transcribed below for clarity:
“Something about Adam Butt: I spoke to him today,” Reich wrote. “I did not tell him why I am asking particular questions (anyway, he already knows [that] the community questions the independence of the experiment). So he says it is part of his master’s thesis and that he co-wrote the paper [with] Yiban, to his knowledge, not with Rusi, and he thinks his name was on it from an earlier stage [rather] than last-minute.
“Of course, it is possible [that Butt] does not know about Rusi’s involvement, or he was not forthcoming when speaking to me.
“But I would like to clear the air for my own sense. [Do] you think it is possible [that] this last-minute thing is something that you assumed because you did not see him involved earlier and because you already were suspicious [that] the paper looked like a set-up, or [is] this something he told you? (In any case, this cannot be reported easily either way if he is refusing to confirm, but, as I say, I would like to try and figure out the contradiction [for] myself.).”
The following day, on Feb. 7, 2006, Reich expanded her investigation.
Reich called Tatjana Jevremovic, but Jevremovic didn’t want to talk. Reich called Bertodano but didn’t get him on the phone and sent him an e-mail, instead. She wanted to talk with him about his “involvement with an attempt to reproduce bubble fusion at Purdue.” Bertodano sent an e-mail back to Reich.
“The results of the experiment have not been published yet, and so they have not gone through the rigorous peer review process,” Bertodano wrote. “Furthermore, the experiment was carried out by a group of researchers, not just me. Therefore, I believe that it is not appropriate for me to communicate the results to the press at this time.”
Bertodano also sent that e-mail to Tsoukalas and Joshua Walter. Reich replied to all three of them in a long e-mail in which she tried to convince them to provide her with their unpublished data from their (alleged) replication failure. She wrote that they were obligated by duty to the public to do so. Reich’s e-mail made it clear that she was convinced that the story would lead to a finding of fraud or research misconduct.
She referred to the Taleyarkhan group’s January 2006 paper published in Physical Review Letters, which cited the successful 2005 Xu-Butt replication. She told Bertodano, Tsoukalas and Walter that they failed to replicate their own attempt at the experiment and that they knowingly omitted reporting this failure. She reminded them that they were aware of potential scientific research integrity issues in Taleyarkhan’s work. Here is a link to the full e-mail. Here is an excerpt from that e-mail, along with a partial transcription:
“You are meanwhile knowing you could not reproduce something, from your own experience,” Reich wrote, “knowing also about problems with Professor Taleyarkhan’s methods, while Nature and all the other science venues and Physical Review Letters [and] all the other places, are publishing and press-releasing work that you know to have major problems. Public money is going into the work, and other groups are wasting time.”
Tsoukalas knew that his group had reproduced the Taleyarkhan experiment in the fall of 2003. He also knew that one of the members of his group played with the data and eventually convinced some of the members of the group — but neither Xu nor Revankar — to go along with the idea of burying the positive data.
“Clearly, we do not know if Professor Taleyarkhan has ever been faking data,” Reich wrote, “and my story is unlikely even to mention this. But we all know that has to be considered as a possible interpretation. Another possible interpretation is he cut corners badly. In any major fraud or hoax case I have studied, and I studied a few, the press played a crucial role in letting things get out of hand.”
Reich pressured Tsoukalas, Bertodano and Walter to publish their “negative” result — the one which the group had submitted to NURETH-11 originally as a confirmation.
“This will however only work if you will let me say that broadly speaking there are negative result (which is the thing that I argue is in the public interest to know now),” Reich wrote. “It will not work otherwise, because otherwise, no one would understand a possible incentive to remove the experiment by Dr Taleyarkhan or your incentives to be cautious submitting (submitting negative results is hard for everybody because you don’t know if you are the ones making the mistake).”
Reich tried to elicit their sympathy for other researchers who might be working on replications but were afraid to report the results, because they might get attacked. She said that Shapira and Saltmarsh had been attacked for criticizing the Taleyarkhan group; however, there is no evidence of any attacks.
“Other people are probably holding back their own manuscripts on negative results because they are afraid to get attacked like Saltmarsh,” Reich wrote. “Somebody has to speak some time. In the BBC film, for example, it was only Putterman and Suslick’s agreement to mention details of unpublished results that prevented the film getting out of hand.”