There are a lot of “holy grails” in science, but a superconductor that works at room temperature is one of the most sought after. So a paper claiming to have found one aroused some interest – before becoming the center of a bizarre story of falsified data and impersonation.
At the end of July, two scientists from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore claimed in a paper on the pre-print server arXiv that they had developed a superconductor that worked at ambient temperatures. They said they had made silver particles embedded in gold become superconductive at -37.15°C (-34.87°F), twice as high as the previous record.
“Our observations pave the way for the fabrication of devices of these NS [synthesized nanostructures] capable of room temperature operation,” they wrote.
If true, this would be one of the most important scientific discoveries of, well, ever. Superconductors can transfer electricity without resistance, meaning we could essentially revolutionize how computers and practically all electronics work.
But hold the champagne. Because last week, MIT physicist Dr Brian Skinner noted in a thread on Twitter some rather odd things about the paper. Namely, it appeared that some of the data had been falsified.
Dr Skinner then wrote his own comment on arXiv responding to the claims, in which he said the unusual feature of repeating noise had “no precedent in the superconducting literature, and no obvious theoretical explanation.”
And that’s where we stood on August 10. But then things started getting really weird.
Dr Skinner got a reply from the authors, who claimed they hadn’t noticed the odd repeating pattern in the noise, but refused to back down from their claims.
Then Professor Pratap Raychaudhuri, a professor and superconductivity expert at the Tata Institute in Mumbai, wrote an article trying to find a rational explanation for the noise patterns. But he later received an email from someone claiming to be Professor T. V. Ramakrishnan, a famous physicist in India.
That email turned out to be fake, sent from an unknown person, asking him to stop criticizing the authors of the paper. The email had been sent from an encrypted account under the name “Wiles Licher”. A Facebook account by this name later tried to add Dr Skinner on the social media site.
Oh, and the Wiles Licher Facebook page also posted a rather cryptic and threatening message: “Julius Caesar. The caesar that did not stop.”
That’s where we’re at now. Dr Skinner says he still hasn’t seen the full data from the original paper, so he still can’t be sure if what they’re claiming is definitely false or not, although it looks mighty suspicious. For now, it’s an exceedingly bizarre tale about the quest for a holy grail.