Monday, November 24, 2014

Is the Abell Foundation's president deceiving his board and potential investors?

Sure looks like it to me... all in the pursuit of the fusion dream.

A few days ago, I got an e-mail from Bob Embry, the long-time president of the Abell Foundation. He wanted me to come down to New Jersey to evaluate the prospects of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics.

(I would ordinarily keep correspondence like this confidential. However, as will become clear, Mr. Embry breached any implied promise of confidentiality.)

On 11/17/2014 9:08 AM, Robert Embry wrote:
Professor Seife,

I just completed Sun in a Bottle.  Thank you.  Our foundation has invested in a company founded by an Eric Lerner call LPP (Lawrenceville Plasma Physics) located in Middlesex, New Jersey.  Their aim is to produce electricity through fusion.  I wondered whether it would be worth your while to visit the company and give us your opinion on its prospects.  We would of course compensate you for your time, or if you did not have the time, interest or up to date expertise since you probably moved on to other topics after writing your book, whether you might suggest whom we might ask.

Bob Embry

I wasn't interested. I knew about LPP, and didn't have a high opinion of them, as I told him:

On 11/17/2014 9:55 AM, Charles Seife wrote:
Dear Mr. Embry,

I'm familiar with Eric Lerner and LPP. I have a low opinion of him and
them.

Lerner holds some very unconventional views about physics -- such as his
big-bang denialism -- and he has shacked up with some very cranky
characters over the years. (My recollection is that he was deeply
involved with the LaRouche movement, and has gotten a lot of support
from Tom Valone's Integrity Research Institute.) Ad hominem, yes, but
his is a very standard profile for a pseudoscientific huckster and a
very rare profile for a true scientific innovator.

Lawrenceville Plasma has been around for decades -- certainly since the
early 90s, though probably with an official formation date earlier than
that. They've managed to spend quite a bit of money since then, and I
don't think they've got much to show for it. They've been pumping up
anemic results as big breakthroughs... and the bottom line is that
they're still very far away, even though they seem to make it look like
they're always a few years and a few hundred thousand dollars from
making production models. Whenever anyone bothers to criticize them,
Lerner shouts "suppression" -- big physics is trying to stomp on the
little guy. Again, standard modus operandi for a certain class of huckster.

Technically, I have doubts about their geometry and their choice of
fuel, but it's probably better to have a plasma physicist discuss that.
Maybe someone at PPPL would be willing to drop by and evaluate them, or
perhaps a knowledgable generalist like Stephen O. Dean of Fusion Power
Associates could give you a more detailed assessment. From my POV,
though, until the cycle of fundraising and inflated claims ends and they
start producing results that make outside physicists take notice, I
doubt there's much reason to spend time evaluating them.

Again -- that's just my opinion, as an outsider who's not done a very
deep analysis, so take it with a big grain of salt. But I hope it's
somewhat helpful.

Cheers,
Charles

He thanked me, and then, late that afternoon, he forwarded a recent LPP press release-cum-report about a new paper. My response:

On 11/17/2014 5:15 PM, Charles Seife wrote:
Thanks! I'll read the paper when I get a chance. But I'll note that (a)
Physics of Plasmas isn't the leading journal in the field (PRL would be
a first-choice publication; Physical Review E is top in plasma physics;
Nuclear Fusion is better regarded, too, and that's just off the top of
my head), (b) a one-month submission-to-publication schedule is an odd
thing to brag about; in fact, it is usually the sign of a sub-par
peer-review process. (Except in the case of clearly revolutionary and
important papers, which this is certainly not, (c) an article explaining
why your experiment isn't working is much less exciting than an article
describing progress toward your ultimate goal.

Just the cynic's take. *grin*

Cheers,
Charles

I thought that this was the end of it. It wasn't.


On 11/21/2014 10:06 AM, Robert Embry wrote:
Mr. Seife,

Sorry to burden you with another document but I thought you might find this independent analysis of LPP of interest.

http://lawrencevilleplasmaphysics.com/images/lpp_review_committee_evaluation-nov_28_2013.pdf


Bob


My response:
On 11/23/2014 7:27 AM, Charles Seife wrote:
Dear Bob,

Thanks... I do find it interesting. (And, as it turns out, Stephen O.
Dean wasn't a bad suggestion. *grin*)

The report is interesting; I suspect that my read is different than the
typical investor's read.

To me, it says:
    1) The technology rests upon several theories that have no
experimental support
    2) The source of those theories is largely Eric Lerner
    3) On the plus side, those theories can be experimentally tested in
the next few years
 
The one point I disagree with:
    4) It's a dramatically underfunded effort.

I guess we'll see in the next few years what'll happen. My take is that
those theories will never really get tested; there will be a bunch of
technical problems that crop up at every stage that will keep the goal
right over the horizon. And that's no matter the funding level. Maybe
the next five years will have a different contour, but I'd bet quite a
bit of money against LPP doing anything that brings fusion energy closer.

Cheers,
Charles

Then, Mr. Embry e-mailed me Eric Lerner's response to my criticisms. I had not given him permission -- nor would I have given permission to share them.

On 11/24/2014 9:23 AM, Robert Embry wrote:
Charles,

Here is Eric's response.  I of course deleted your name.

Bob
 I won't detail Lerner's response, but there is one section of the e-mail chain -- clearly from Embry to Lerner -- which has a very interesting revelation:

I've been debating whether to share these emails with you but decided I would want to know if I were in your situation.  They are the product of my continuing effort to obtain a positive outside review to use with our board and potential investors.  I'll keep trying.  Negative responses I will just share with you.

Bob


Ouch.

Not only was Embry sharing my unvarnished criticisms with Eric Lerner, this implies that Embry has been spending his time trying to gin up a "positive outside review" of LPP's work, while systematically discarding "negative responses."

Can anyone tell me whether this behavior is consistent with Embry's fiduciary duty to the Abell foundation, to the Abell board, and to potential Abell investors?