Aggie Alchemy

John Bockris was known around Texas A&M as a chemist interested in "weird science." Joe Champion gave him all he could handle.

Texas A&M Code of Honor
"Ye who makes thy own gold, makes thy own rules."
New Golden Rule

On a mid-October morning in 1992, three Americans, all connected in one way or another with Texas A&M University, stood up in front of a gathering of press people at the El Presidente Hotel in Mexico City to make what they claimed would be an important announcement. The first to speak was Dr. Joe Champion, a large man in an open shirt and dark jacket, who introduced himself as the lead scientist for something called the Philadelphia Project. At first, Champion played to the journalists' worst fears by launching into a highly technical discourse, tossing off phrases such as "Through careful nuclear predisposition, the isotopic compositions of base minerals could be selectively transmuted through electromagnetic resonance" and "This fission or separation is in all cases equivalent to the separation of an alpha particle within the nucleus of the atom."

Gobbledygook, most of the reporters thought. But then a phrase stuck: "For example, if we placed mercury in a field of resonance, two of its seven isotopes are converted into platinum."

Platinum? Interesting. The reporters looked at their watches and silently prayed for a mild earthquake. A moment later, they got it.

"However," Champion said, "one of these new isotopes of platinum is not stable. It converts to gold within a period of six days."

Say again? The room fairly buzzed as the implication of Champion's statement took hold. Start with mercury, end with gold. Alchemy.

Champion smiled as the room came alive. This was the moment of glory he had so long awaited, the culmination of years of study and planning and work. Champion had everyone's attention. To set the hook, he turned to a rumpled, bespectacled man to his left.

Dr. John O'Mara Bockris stood and introduced himself: distinguished professor of chemistry at Texas A&M; the author of a score of books and more academic papers than you'd care to count; a legend in electrochemistry -- and now, it seemed, a legitimizing presence in a field of study thought dead centuries before.

The reporters were rapt. Champion had a crudeness about him, but Bockris, despite a cheap suit and a few wild hairs that sprung violently from his balding head, oozed genteel authority.

"The problem," Bockris sniffed in his stuffy British accent, "is that most people are so ingrained with traditional scientific theory that they have no room in their philosophies for such a totally revolutionary concept. They would rather deny it altogether than to have to rethink their whole perceptions of physics. This is the greatest advance in modern science."

Well, it was certainly news.
Or so it seemed then, when Mexican newspapers and television reported the story. But today, the tale of the Philadelphia Project appears much different. Then, it was a story of progress and good intentions. Now, it is one of fraud and greed. What started as a parable of teamwork and scientific breakthroughs looks today like the sad saga of how Texas A&M University, one of the country's finest research institutions, lent its name to the willful corruption of scientific integrity and encouraged two men, one of whom should have known better, to revisit a long-abandoned pseudo-science.

At first, the Philadelphia Project was a promise taken seriously and with hope. Today, it just might be the greatest Aggie joke of all time.

If there was a science reporter at the El Presidente, he or she had likely heard of John O'M. Bockris. During his 50-year career Bockris has starred at a number of news conferences, many of them based on flamboyant exercises in scientific miscalculation only a touch less odd than alchemy.

Bockris was born in South Africa and raised and educated in London. In 1960 he went to the University of Pennsylvania, where, a decade later, he claimed the birth of the "hydrogen economy" with a method for using sunlight to free hydrogen from water. In 1982, four years after he had moved on to A&M, Bockris announced a "quantum leap" in his hydrogen-fuel technology through a "secret catalyst" that split water into hydrogen and oxygen even without the energy of sunlight. Two years later, focusing on a slightly different scientific arena, he claimed to have found a material that facilitated complete conversion of sunlight to electricity, something that would have no doubt surprised many researchers in photo-voltaic technology.

As it turned out, all three "breakthroughs" were the result of research errors more common to an undergraduate chemistry student than a scientist with a half-century's experience. Bockris, a stubborn, autocratic man with a flair for the dramatic, further damaged his credibility by grandstanding before the media with provocative -- and unconfirmed -- findings. In each case Bockris later refused to admit his mistakes, despite damning research by other scientists.

"He is an ambitious, egocentric, driven human being who has come a long way ... by aggressive, outlandish at times, scrapping," says one of Bockris' colleagues at A&M. Another A&M colleague, Doherty-Welch distinguished professor of chemistry Dr. Albert Cotton, says, "He did, in the course of his earlier career, a little bit of work that was good science. He was hired here -- a decision I thought was risky. There were many, many danger signs.... And he wasn't here very long before he began not only not getting better, but actually getting worse."

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