Blinded With Science

So the room-temperature superconductor was a super disappointment, but even though the claims didn’t stand up in the end, the even better news is that real science was done. A paper making extraordinary claims came out, the procedure to make LK-99 was followed in multiple labs around the world, and then it was tested. It didn’t turn out to conduct particularly well at all. After a couple weeks of global superconductor frenzy, everything is back to normal again.

What the heck happened? First of all, the paper itself made extravagant claims about a holy-grail kind of material. There was a very tantalizing image of a black pellet floating in mid air, which certainly seems like magic, even though it’s probably only run-of-the-mill ferromagnetism in the end. But it made for a great photo-op in a news-starved August, and the then-still-Twitterverse took to it by storm. And then the news outlets piled on the hype fest.

If you’re feeling duped by the whole turn of events, you’re not alone. But the warning signs were there from the beginning, if you took the time to look. For me, it was the closing line of the paper: “We believe that our new development will be a brand-new historical event that opens a new era for humankind.”

That’s not the kind of healthy skepticism and cautious conclusion that real science runs best on. Reading the paper, I had almost no understanding of the underlying materials science, but I knew enough about human nature to suspect that the authors had rushed the paper out the door without sufficient scrutiny.

How can we keep from being fooled again? Carl Sagan’s maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a good start. To that, I would add that science moves slowly, and that extraordinary evidence can only accumulate over time. So when you see hype science, simply wait to draw any conclusions. If it is the dawn of a new era, you’ll have a lot of time to figure out what room-temperature superconductivity means to you in the rosy future. And if it’s just a flash in the pan, you won’t have gotten your hopes up.

62 thoughts on “Blinded With Science

  1. I haven’t seen much discussion of what went wrong.
    Did the researchers test their material poorly ? Or did they explain the procedure poorly ?
    Is there still a possibility that they did make a new discovery but misunderstood how ?

    1. What really went wrong is that media is unable to tolerate the uncertainty of science and so resorts to constantly “calling it”.

      We’ve been using adrenaline during cardiac arrest for 120 years and we’re still not sure if it’s worth while (see PARAMEDIC and PARAMEDIC2 trials). Why do we expect to know for sure with LK-99 within a month? Let alone with a year or ten?

    2. The thing that went wrong was that LK-99 is a *ceramic* — you can’t really make anything practical out of that, even if all the other claims were true (and they aren’t, so that’s kind of a moot point).

      The paper claims that LK-99 will remove the need to EV batteries, it’ll make maglev trains go billion miles an hour and cost basically nothing, power cabling will have zero losses and so on and so forth, but…..well, for one, EVs need an internal power source or an external one and super-conductive wiring doesn’t remove that need. Maglevs? The biggest problem currently is wind-resistance and super-conductive cabling and magnets wouldn’t remove that. Cabling, then? It’s a ceramic, you can’t make cables out of it because it’s both brittle and it doesn’t bend.

      There’s so much wrong with all the claims both in the paper and the ones floating around the Internet, because it being a ceramic is being ignored.

      1. It doesn’t actually matter if LK-99 itself is completely unsuitable for any practical use. If it actually shows novel properties, then materials scientists can study it to improve their understanding of the underlying mechanism. Once you know *how* a material can become a room-temperature superconductor, you can then create new materials that combine it with the other properties you actually want.

          1. The original team refuses access to their original sample and refuses to make more. Every group reproducing the experiment confirms it is only diamagnetic and not a super conductor. If you wish to argue to the contrary I await your proof as the original team is not cooperating.

          2. The hype was a little rushed, they claimed they have sent samples to 2 other labs for testing, but looking at it from a materialistic standpoint combining Lead and Copper by most accounts would make a worse conductor not a better one.

          3. It’s ferromagnetic, not diamagnetic. Which makes it significantly more exciting than originally thought. Mind you, even a new diamagnetic material is quite a significant achievement on its own, but this thing is far bigger than that.

        1. “Once you know *how* a material can become a room-temperature superconductor, you can then create new materials that combine it with the other properties you actually want.”

          If only materials sciences worked like that.

        2. Yep, higher temperature ceramic super conductors have been around for a long time and they haven’t shown to be useful because you can’t make wires out of them. Even if LK-99 had turned out to be an actual room temperature super conductor, it would change nothing, because it too suffers from the same ceramic material limitations of use.

          1. Nothing stops you from just not using wires – what is a PCB but a generally brittle failure carrier board that can be a ceramic with some traces on it, so if you can create something like that with a ‘super conductive’ and insulating ceramic selectively laid out… (Probably with machined channel to run something like LN2 though – as ‘high temperature super conductor’ generally still means way below zero and LN2 is pretty cheap)

            Just because nobody has yet found affordable/practical ways to use the existing ceramic super conductor doesn’t mean they will never will.

          2. I don’t know what sort of PCBs you have, but mine are fiberglass and copper, which are not brittle.

            The issue with ceramic not being suitable for wires is that for nearly every application where you’d want the superconductor, it is used in some form of a coil, and manufacturing a coil out of a ceramic material is nearly impossible or at least exceedingly expensive.

          3. Reply to Dude:

            I know of 2 forms of ceramic PCBs. One was genuine ceramic, used for hybrid integrated circuits. The other (as I understand it) is ceramic composite where a ceramic replaces fiberglass in a material like FR4. The advantage for large production volumes is that holes can be punched and doesn’t wear out tooling as fast as fiberglass does.

          4. Would that be the same for FR1 and FR2?

            Though plain paper and epoxy boards have a habit of shrinking too much in the oven, which makes them warp, so they can’t be used with most lead-free solder pastes because they require high temperatures.

          5. Dude I did say brittle failure which also covers all the fibreglass ones as well – might be pretty impressively durable and flexes quite well but when it goes it does fail in a brittle fashion.

            However I was thinking of the many wacky substrates you can find out there for varied reasons, which can include sheet glass even! Lots of times when the default fibreboard isn’t a good choice, maybe service temps, maybe its needing more rigidity, maybe its the conditions in the operating environment, or maybe you just want transparent PCB. Lots of crazy stuff out there and most of the substrates used that are not flexible or the default fibreglass are ceramics of some sort.

          6. Still, it’s not really a sensible comparison, and mostly irrelevant. Glass fiber is pretty damn bendy, whereas ceramic superconductors – and trying to make wires and coils out of them – is like trying to twist porcelain.

          7. “Yep, higher temperature ceramic super conductors have been around for a long time and they haven’t shown to be useful ”

            HTS superconducting tape is maybe a decade or two old, not a “long time.”

    3. The most interesting thing is the wide variety of results coming from the different labs. Which suggests to me that the manufacturing process isn’t fully controlled and the various samples have significant differences in impurities and structure to each other.

      I’m reminded of the Fogbank story – where the US had significant problems trying to restart manufacture of a key material used in their aging nuclear weapons. All their samples failed to replicate the properties of the original stuff, and it took millions of dollars and many years of failed attempts before they finally discovered that their modern synthesis techniques were *too good* and excluded a dopant that was in the original material as an impurity and not recognised as being actually critical.

      So while it’s still highly unlikely there’s anything world-shattering about LK-99, materials scientists are probably going to have a field day with it for a while until all the details are understood.

        1. Pretty much. Especially because there is no single “original sample” – the first paper already says they deposited a thin-film of it, and that’s the actual origin of the superconductivity claim. Which means the ‘floating rock’ in the paper is *not* the claimed superconductor. The bulk resistivity measurements are all way above any standard definition.

          The issue with the thin-film superconductor claim is that resistivity is inversely proportional to the thickness, and there’s exactly zero mention of what the thickness is, so it’s really a “trust me bro, it’s a superconductor” claim.

    4. the thing hovered, they got excited, posted a video, the internet got excited, the scientifically illiterate newsmen and the usual youtube clickbait crew ran with it, both to make a quick buck. the news made the scientists excited and mistook the reception as peer review actual. it then took a few days for their humility to kick back in gear. scientists can easily get caught up in their own hype.

    5. My 2 cents on what went wrong: Koreans found an exciting new materials with properties one would never expect from such a composition. They misinterpreted what they’ve seen as superconductivity, while the truth turns out to be quite a bit more interesting – it seems to be a previously unknown kind of a ferromagnetic. Still, shame on them for missing the obvious (my first thought upon seeing their videos was “it’s absolutely a composite ferromagnetic and cannot be anything else”), but thanks for discovering something really new in material science.

      And think of the applications! The larger crystals of this thing are transparent. Can you think of anything cooler than a transparent magnet?

      1. The transparent crystal samples have been the ones that were contaminated with small amounts of Fe, hence the ferromagnetism. Any magnet can be transparent if it’s got small and sparse enough bits of iron.

          1. Where does it say it’s strongly ferromagnetic? That paper doesn’t have any analysis of the sample itself (“Further analysis of our samples will follow.”) : the latter half consists of ab initio calculations, and refer to a *separate* paper regarding soft ferromagnetism. The samples there were not transparent, but “were black
            thick pieces with a diameter of 6 mm and a thickness of 3 mm.”

    6. The simplest explanation is that they’re relatively inexperienced and just got fooled by a tricky situation because they were *looking* for superconductivity. Diamagnetism coupled with a conductive impurity (CuS) that has a phase change resulting in a large resistivity drop (but not to zero) – if you’re looking for superconductivity, that’s going to make you think it.

      There are a few questionable things outstanding still – a few videos showing orientation locking which are likely fake, claimed “thin film” resistivity at 10^-10 ohm-cm (with no details on the thin film itself and no other measurement of resistivity that small) which only shows up in the first (three author) paper. Which kindof implies that it’s a dash of inexperience, a smidge of bad luck, and a pinch of fraud.

  2. I don’t feel duped, I feel intrigued. The material has unique properties, and since various labs were able to get similar results, it may be a key to future discoveries.

    It is part of the process

    1. Kinda copey. Yes, experimental failures are part of the process but they aren’t exactly intriguing. They basically made a crappier version of that stuff on the back of fridge magnets

  3. this whole superconductor thing was blown out of proportion. you got some scientists with some industrial schmoo doing weird things, and before the paper even comes out you got a flapping blob of said schmoo on a youtube video. and people are ranting and raving about it, making a quick buck with a clickbait video and failing to realize that real science is slow. inconclusive is the word of the day. reporters should learn that one, and some scientists.

  4. To avoid being “duped” by bad science, read Feynman’s essay on cargo cult sience.

    In it, Feynman argues that good science doesn’t focus on proving the result the authors want. It lists all the possibilities, examines them, and finds evidence to contradict them. The one that can’t be broken is the one least likely to be wrong.

    Good science doesn’t ‘prove’ things, it tries to disprove them and fails.

    It’s impossible to test, or even think of, every possible objection, which is why science will always be incomplete. It’s also why good science wants as much adversarial review as it can get: other experts can think of more problems and alternatives the original authors can. ‘Consensus of experts’ is just groupthink, but ‘collective failure to find a valid alternative’ is science.

    Once you learn how to look for alternatives and their refutations, it gets a lot easier to spot the difference between real science and a press release from a university PR department.

    1. >Good science doesn’t ‘prove’ things, it tries to disprove them and fails.

      Which is why we’re still paying for research to prove that cellphones cause cancer – despite three or four decades of inconclusive or negative results. “More research is needed.”

        1. That’s kind of the “dumb guy” conspiracy that was deployed and joked about to not have to think about the very real problems with the response and the whole origin of the virus.. You know, important stuff. In ten or twenty years, everyone is going to be pretending that they were always skeptical.

      1. The real kicker is a very old study.

        Standing in front of a Radar dish to get warm while stationed north of the arctic circle doesn’t cause cancer. They tracked the cold war radar techs to the grave. Not a huge population, but enough. They could see the cancer from flux, same as all electronic techs of that era. No extra from the microwave warmups, which were common practice.

  5. @Kryptylomese

    Please, folks, check your sources [1] [2] [3]

    Non-metallic superconductors are finnicky, and it is hard to make “wires” out of them (this involves embedding the stuff in a copper matrix, or putting it in a silver tube and drawing that to a wire), but it seems to be worth the effort for actually existing practical systems.

    Cooling stuff with liquid helium is a beast in itself, too.


  6. The really big red flags should have been South Korea’s national labs had requested samples of the LK-99 materials the paper’s research team had made to verify the results using the group’s own materials… and not only never received those materials, they never received a reply at all.

    Now if we can only figure out how to stop this endless cycle of credulous press that never bothers to verify claims for fear of losing a scoop…

    1. Science reporting is hopeless. They can’t even repeat the simplest of claims without mangling them beyond recognition.

      Hyping new things isn’t the biggest problem.

      Reporters _cannot_ get science right. They were ‘promised no math’.

      Working reporter filters:
      1. Go to J school despite the fact that J schools graduate the same number of people as there are Journalist jobs, every year. Learn absolutely no math or science. Party.
      2. Intern, for free, for years while living in expensive place. Party.
      3. Never step out of line, never break the circle jerk. Party.

      On the upside, traditional media is dying.

      1. On the downside, traditional media is infesting networks like lice and installing themselves into invisible bureaucracies in their struggle to remain relevant and keep their hands on the levers

  7. This also explains why the comments section of HaD is so great. Non ironic. Just a bunch of people mostly applauding attempts but also giving considered opinions on how or why to do something much better. I learn a lot. And it is basically peer review.

  8. Now imagine all negative comments were suppressed and a law was passed for everyone to install this super conductor in your home. Everyone not obeying will be ostracized. Two years later after a lot of damage had been done it gets quietly reverted and no one owns up their role in this whole event

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