Thursday, 15 March 2007

Andrew Riley

Andrew Riley was my closest friend when I was eleven years old, and I think I was his. We then went to different schools, my parents and I moved to another part of Ipswich and, although Andrew cycled to see me and I visited him at home, we had parted company within a year. I remember little about him: his dark hair, his intelligence, playing Mousetrap with him and Waddington’s Table Soccer, a game which adapted the tiddlywinks technique and for which Andrew had developed a tactic I could not defeat, only emulate, leading to many 0-0 draws. A chance meeting ten years on revealed that we were both doing doctoral research, Andrew in chemistry, but we had no desire to pick up a lost childhood friendship.

On 2nd January 1992, Andrew was killed in an explosion at SRI International, the Californian research institute. The group Andrew was part of was studying cold fusion, the controversial possibility that energy-releasing nuclear fusion can take place at room temperature. In common with other cold fusion researchers, they were passing electricity through deuterium oxide, heavy water, using a palladium cathode. This simple apparatus was enclosed within a calorimeter so that measurements of heat exchange could be made. The SRI group had pioneered techniques which enabled measurement to great precision through innovative uses of digital technology. On this basis, they hoped to elucidate the arguments which had been surrounding cold fusion, with its promise of a safe non-polluting energy source, since the late 1980s.

What happened on the 2nd January has been the subject of a number of investigations and a variety of different accounts exist. Usenet group rumours rapidly spread that Andrew had died when he manually tried to release a malfunctioning automatic pressure valve. More conspiratorial versions exist with suspicions still lingering over why other electrolysis cells were buried at SRI in the aftermath and why investigators were prevented from accessing equipment and had sections of reports suppressed. Formal forensic investigations have been uncertain about what set things off but agree that the explosion itself was the result of products released from the electrolysis cell reacting with the atmosphere. An article in the journal Forensic Science in 1995 grimly reported that some of Andrew’s tissue could be found on the shattered steel of the exploded cell, indicating the instantaneous nature of the disaster.

Five years ago, on a wet winter day, I decided to walk back into the centre of Ipswich from an appointment at an out of town opticians rather than take the bus. I diverted to some childhood locations including the Brunswick Road Recreation Ground where Andrew and I had played. Much had changed. There were no see-saws, witches hats or long slides depositing children roughly onto tarmacadam surfaces. The rec was surrounded on all sides by housing. The farm whose workers we used to taunt through the boundary fence was gone. The deep hole, fully 30 metres across, into which all manner of exciting waste was dumped, just adjacent to where we played and accessible through a gap in the fence, was filled and a day care centre for the elderly built on these foundations. The tall trees, which are noted on two hundred year old maps, had been felled and a number of new ones planted. One of these had a small plate at its base with lettering affixed. A memorial dedication to Andrew. In the heavy cold rain, I wept.

A few weeks ago I returned to take photographs and to think about writing a little about Andrew to launch this blog. The face of the rusting plate no longer carried the dedication. Andrew’s tree stood marked but anonymous. I took some photographs and walked away wondering what to do. I considered taking a sheet from my notepad and writing on it Andrew Riley, Electrochemist, 1958-1992, perhaps attaching it with chewing gum, but I had none.

I had long been interested in cold fusion as exemplary suborderly science. It drifts anomalously between other orders of thought, between the everyday homeliness of room temperature to deathly explosiveness if badly contained, between messiah and deceiver. As I drafted this account drinking stout in The Dove, with Andrew’s desolate tree much in mind, further thoughts occupied me. How carefully we have to maintain our acts of commemoration. We have to remember to remember. People. Places. Events. No history without diligence.

And from this it is a small move to recognise how tenuous the world of science can also be. Cold fusion is now an area populated by ageing senior scientists who can pursue its research off the back of other monies. Funding bodies are loath to support the field. Young scientists cannot establish reputations in it. In a recent interview, Andrew’s colleague Michael McKubre notes how cold fusion’s scientists and their once vociferous debunkers are now equally dying out. Soon, perhaps, no one will be able to do the experiments with the necessary exactness of technique and, if anyone cares, there may be other fatalities as the know-how is reconstructed.

In an image which haunts and terrifies me from an otherwise dispassionate forensic report, science itself can be as fleeting as Andrew’s grip on the exploding cell and as legible afterwards as his handprint still attached to the steel.


TheLadyofAvich (LofA) said...

The Culture of Memory. There are those that believe that things...places, structures leave footprints behind, like ghostly geography. Thus a house can leave a ghost, a neighbourhood, a section of a city. Is is posssible that in the 'explosion' of leaving the inhabitants leave traces behind, much like Andrew? Thus resulting in a ghostly mark, and tidal mark per se? And if so, would not these apparations, these ghost marks, on geography be suborderly?

John Bowers said...

Suborderly as a contraction of subliminal-orderly perhaps. These ghosts are material. In the wear of surfaces, the kink of a street, the name of a neighbourhood. You speak of psychogeography, m'lady, and its suborderly landscapes may well feature from time to time in this blog.