JOHN O'M. Bockris, distinguished professor of chemistry at Texas A&M; University, is experimenting to turn mercury into gold. He has a grant of $200,000 to do it from William Telander, a California financier who has been charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Twenty-four of Texas A&M;'s 32 distinguished professors, as reported recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, have asked the university to strip Mr. Bockris of his distinguished professorship.
Alchemists have been trying to transmute elements into gold since the Dark Ages, and have been seen in the intellectual zTC community as frauds, quacks, nuts, mad or theoretically outdated. Some of the finest minds of the Renaissance and the birth of science were also alchemists, but it is arguable that they didn't know better. Mr. Bockris does.
Mr. Bockris claims his researchers have had a tiny success in producing gold, but the results could not be duplicated. The protesting professors say that, "For a trained scientist to claim, or support anyone else's claim, to have transmuted elements is difficult for us to believe and is no more acceptable than to claim to have invented a gravity shield, revived the dead, or to be mining green cheese on the moon."
Needless to say, Mr. Bockris' lawyer demands academic freedom. The intellectual sins defended in the name of that principle are legion. The academic community doesn't believe for a minute that nonsense should be taught; it just cannot reach a consensus on what is nonsense or who gets to decide. But in this case, the faculty is trying to shut a colleague down for what he writes and does in the lab, while the administration defends his right to do it. That's a switch.
You can understand some administrators' anxiety. They never look a gift horse in the mouth. What if, despite the best minds of Texas, Mr. Bockris is right? Ah, there's the rub. If gold were cheap and plentiful, it would lose its value, which is based as much on scarcity as on gleam. Mr. Bockris is chasing rainbows. Someone always will, as long as there might be a pot of gold at the end.