The discovery would change the world. From power grids that never lose energy to magnetically levitating trains, finding a material that is superconductive at room temperature would bring a range of fantastical technologies to life. And it is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Although superconductors—materials that can transmit electricity with zero resistance—exist only at extremely frigid temperatures today, there is no physical reason why they cannot also work at room temperature. It could simply be that no one has stumbled upon the magical formula yet. But that might be about to change. In a study posted to the arXiv in late July, Dev Kumar Thapa and Anshu Pandey, two scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, suggest a concoction of gold and silver nanoparticles achieves the Nobel Prize–worthy goal. The finding, from a reputable team, was initially met with both excitement and skepticism as physicists cautiously took a closer look. But the story has since prompted disbelief and even a little drama.
Despite physicists’ hope, those in the field know that numerous previous claims of warm superconductors have all fizzled out. So many initially worried that Thapa and Pandey’s find would turn out to be one more erroneous report—dubbed a USO or unidentified superconducting object. But that natural skepticism transformed into suspicion when Brian Skinner, a physicist at MIT, found something unnerving. In one of the paper’s figures, which shows how well the superconductor repels different magnetic fields at various temperatures, he noticed that the data for two different values of the magnetic field have the exact same pattern of noise, albeit slightly offset from each other.* Every time one pattern veers up or down, the other follows—perfectly in sync. But noise is random by definition. It should not repeat itself on separate trials done under different magnetic fields.
That correlation is alarming alone. But it also echoed one of the biggest scandals in modern physics. In the early 2000s, scientists discovered that prominent physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, who also worked on superconductors among other topics, had falsified data from several experiments. It was a move that eventually stripped him of his doctoral degree and led to the retraction of several papers. And, yes, the discovery was sparked when scientists noticed that the noise pattern within one of his published graphs looked eerily similar to the noise pattern within another.
It is a story that scientists know extremely well. “It’s sort of like a bedtime fable,” Skinner says, told to teach students to be scrupulously honest. And it made Skinner hesitant to publish his finding. He knew that the repeated noise pattern would bring Schön to the forefront of everyone’s minds—making his claim sound like an accusation against Thapa and Pandey. Skinner deliberated for more than a week, pulling other scientists aside—from technicians to senior experimentalists—to ask whether this could be an honest mistake. Although that is still possible, everyone agreed that the noise patterns had no obvious explanation. Skinner knew he had an obligation to go public. So, in a short note published to the arXiv, he pointed out the repeated noise pattern and asked for an explanation, without suggesting the data were fraudulent. And Peter Armitage, a physicist from Johns Hopkins University, agrees it was the correct move. “I think that’s a really important observation and he’s done a true service to the field by not only pointing it out—but having the nerve to do so publicly,” he says.
Despite Skinner’s careful attempt to not accuse the team, his finding caused quite the debate. “When I looked at Skinner’s paper and I saw the curve, I thought ‘game over,’” says David Muller, a physicist at Cornell University. “It’s not hard evidence … but I know which way I would take a bet.” The original paper’s authors have not addressed the noise correlation, and say they are waiting for outside validation of their results. Pratap Raychaudhuri, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India, set out to find the most plausible explanation for the correlation. After much thought, he argues that the noise is not noise at all but a signal that arises from the natural rotation of particles within a magnetic field. The signal simply looks random and therefore masquerades as noise. What is more: this pattern can repeat itself after independent runs—thus explaining why the two curves match. Although Raychaudhuri admits that he does not fully believe his rationalization, he says it can be easily tested at any professional lab—should the authors send their samples along.
The issue is that Thapa and Pandey have done no such thing. “This kind of silence from the authors is not a healthy practice,” Raychaudhuri says. “It is against the spirit of science.” And while Pandey insists that his results are being validated by independent experts, that brings no comfort to Raychaudhuri, who worries the checks cannot truly be independent. “Getting this validated by your friend, by your next-door colleague and so on, is not independent validation,” he says. He and others in the field would like the team to send their superconducting material to outside labs that can test the results.
In the meantime, the story has taken a wild turn: In August, Raychaudhuri received an e-mail that appeared to come from T.V. Ramakrishnan, a physicist at the Indian Institute of Science, asking him not to criticize the authors on social media. (Raychaudhuri had posted his findings to Facebook.) But Ramakrishnan never sent such an e-mail. It did not take long before the two realized that a fake e-mail address had been set up in Ramakrishnan’s name. “The purpose of the e-mail seems to be to stir up discord between him and me,” Ramakrishnan says. But the odd events do not end there. The same name attached to the encrypted e-mail address is also attached to a Facebook profile that attempted to befriend both Skinner and Raychaudhuri shortly after the e-mail scandal. The profile has zero friends and the timeline reads: "Remember: Julius Caesar went too far!"
Both the e-mail address and the Facebook profile have been deleted. Some suspect that it was the work of a disgruntled student, but Raychaudhuri thinks it is far too early to venture a guess. At the moment, he is surprisingly thankful that so much scientific discourse has happened over social media. Not only did Raychaudhuri post several Facebook posts last week, but Skinner also posted a Twitter thread—events that brought the scientific process into the public sphere. “This is a very good thing, because it connects people,” Raychaudhuri says. “The research community is normally very esoteric and detached from society at large.” He is even optimistic that no matter what happens—whether Thapa and Pandey’s results hold up or their work turns out to be incorrect—that the events will help the public understand this is how the scientific method works to verify (or reject) claims in order to slowly inch forward.
*Editor's Note (8/20/18): This sentence was edited after posting. The original erroneously stated the noise pattern appeared in the data for two different temperatures.