The Aggie Alchemist is back, and this time, it's virtual.
"Dr." Joe Champion commandeered the brain and laboratory of a chemistry professor at Texas A&M in 1992, and now he's brought his weird science to the Internet. But be forewarned: The former Houstonian is not turning scrap iron into gold, nor is he churning out commercial quantities of precious metals.
Champion has been making such claims for more than a decade. Visitors to his Web site, www.transmutation.com, will find scant evidence that he has, at long last, cracked the centuries-old mystery of the philosopher's stone. But those who poke around on the exquisitely designed portal will come across an equally stunning proclamation: the secret to a cheap and limitless supply of nuclear energy.
What the site doesn't say much about is the shadowy background of this modern-day Merlin (see "Aggie Alchemy," by Brian Wallstin, April 7, 1994). Before he began trying to spin gold out of dross, Champion was, by some accounts, a booze hound and a common rogue. In 1987 he was charged with aggravated kidnapping and three counts of indecency with a minor. Those charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to felony theft for writing a bad check for $2,000. He served one year of a four-year prison sentence.
According to an East Texas pastor once close to the family, during his term, Champion nickel-and-dimed his mother into poverty in order to buy books and research materials for his postincarceration calling.
Some people come out of the joint born again. Champion emerged as someone so pure of spirit he could divine the secret properties of gold. Alchemy is commonly associated with the Middle Ages, but the basic idea dates back to Aristotle. Gold was thought to possess the perfect combination of four universal elements -- earth, air, fire and water -- and finding the correct blend was a surefire way to get rich.
By 1992 Champion concluded the key was nuclear. That led him to Dr. John O'M Bockris, a South African-born electrochemist, now retired, whose flamboyant career at A&M hit an embarrassing nadir in 1989.
Expanding on discredited research into cold fusion -- a sustained, table-top nuclear reaction at room temperature -- Bockris stunned the world by claiming to produce tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. But Bockris failed to replicate his experiment in a public demonstration, and cold fusion was tossed onto the scientific junk pile.
Bockris bit when Champion proposed testing his theories at A&M, backed by a $200,000 private endowment by Californian William Telander. In 1992 the two led a newly formed research team called the Philadelphia Project.
Champion had mastered the highbrow vernacular of nuclear physics, but his experiments were almost laughably crude: As he later described in his book Creating Precious Metals at Home, Champion would fill a coffee can with shavings of various base metals and put a torch to it. After two months of "research," Bockris suggested Champion's process could lead to transmuting worthless material into gold.
Those claims were soon sullied by an FBI investigation into allegations that Telander's donation to A&M was actually the product of a pyramid scheme. Federal investigators shut down the Philadelphia Project and gained a ten-year prison sentence against Telander for securities fraud. Champion, meanwhile, got a five-year term for bilking two Arizona men of $150,000 in a South American gold-smuggling scheme.
From jail in Phoenix, Champion put together a new research team. Investors eventually lost more than $250,000 following Champion's Betty Crocker-style recipes for "nuclear synthesis."
At transmutation.com, Champion declares his independence from the kindness and gullibility of strangers: "We are funded internally from the rewards that the science works and is producing its own income." He now calls himself Mission Commander for the Advancement of Dimensional Science.
According to his Web site, Champion's projects include his patented claims of precious-metal production on a commercial scale. He is also engaged in "proving dimensional access," a new realm of transmutation that he claims will create a kind of fourth dimension.
"The reactions once thought to be alchemic in nature [cold fusion and transmutation] are not governed by the classical physical models," he says. "They are a delicate interface between the dimension that we occupy and that of another we are yet to perceive.
"We fully realize that by making the mission statement that we are, we will fall prey to many who think us delirious."
No doubt. But one man who's intrigued is John O'M Bockris. An alleged Bockris letter posted on the Web site lauds his protégé for exploring "consciousness as a force in nature."
The letter reaches back more than a decade to explain Bockris's belief that "some transmutations are psychically dependent," including, it seems, cold nuclear fusion. In 1990, shortly after Bockris's research was debunked, allegations arose that Nigel Packham, an A&M postdoctoral candidate, had spiked the experiments with tritium. In the reported letter to Champion, Bockris offers an explanation for why no one else could duplicate his research.
"Occasionally, one does get glimpses of a psychic influence. The Utah group couldn't get tritium at all. Then Nigel Packham visited Salt Lake. He didn't go into the lab, but he stayed at a meeting a few hundred yards away [and] immediately they got tritium! They didn't get it again when Nigel left town."
Bockris, who retired a few years ago as professor emeritus of chemistry, could not be reached for comment. Champion and his four-person Internet "crew" did not respond to e-mails from the Houston Press.
Harlan Sanders, who documents the various claims of "armchair researchers" at her Web site, NuScam.com, says most people she knows "have no idea what to make of the research and are mostly undecided on an opinion."
Jerry Decker, an energy researcher who runs an on-line discussion group called Keelynet, says he used to attend conferences on transmutation, hosted by Bockris.
"They were wonderful, private, invitation-only affairs," Decker said in an e-mail. "Dr. Bockris told me although he found cold fusion, with its attendant production of anomalous heat interesting, if he had the funding, he would like to spend the rest of his life studying transmutation."
Decker says he never met Champion, but has spoken with him by phone and exchanged e-mails with him. Though people are wary of the former convict, Champion "is a most interesting fellow" with a story that, for centuries now, has never failed to intrigue.
"The jail thing definitely hurt his reputation," Decker says. "But I think he will recover."
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