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    Scandal! Scientist Makes Honest Mistake, Humbly Retracts Supersolidity Result
    By Robert Cooper | October 16th 2012 12:49 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Robert

    I have given up on categories. I did a BA in physics, a PhD in molecular biology, and now a postdoc in a bioengineering department. So call that...

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    You may have heard of superfluids and superconductors, so why not supersolids?  In 2004 Moses Chan and Eunseong Kim thought they had discovered that super-cooled helium ice could essentially walk through walls – a defining characteristic of a supersolid.  

    The experiment was to make a cylinder with tiny nanopores in its walls, fill the pores with solid helium ice, suspend the cylinder from a torsional spring, and then give it a little twist.  Like a kid on a swing set, the cylinder started rotating back and forth, with a frequency depending on its mass.  As they supercooled the cylinder even further, they saw that the oscillation frequency changed, as if it had less mass!  

    The interpretation was that the helium had become a supersolid – it had begun moving through the walls of the cylinder, and thus did not contribute to its rotational inertia.

    This girl's spinning frequency depends on her weight. And possibly temperature.
    This girl's spinning period of oscillation depends on her mass.  And possibly temperature.  (DavidMaisel via wikimedia.org)

    Although Chan was cautious about his interpretation, even titling the paper “Probable observation of a supersolid helium phase”, it still set the physics world supersolidly abuzz.  Other groups seemed to confirm the findings, but strangely, different groups were measuring different magnitude effects.  Finally, based on a suggestion from another group, Chan went back and did his experiment slightly differently.  The worry was that larger helium crystals could be elastic, and since this elasticity would change with temperature, it could also alter oscillation frequency as temperature decreased.  So Chan eliminated all spaces for larger, elastic helium crystals in the cylinder and found that … the supersolid effect disappeared.

    After playing a sad trombone, Chan dutifully reported his result in a new paper, and science progressed.  This is how science works: you report results and interpretations, and then other groups do their best to make sure everything makes sense.  Normally, mistakes are caught early on by self-skepticism and peer review, but sometimes an honest misinterpretation can get through.  When it’s caught, most scientists would respond magnanimously the way Chan did: “I’m in an awkward position, since we started the whole damn thing, but I’m glad we were the ones who found the explanation.”

    So when the headlines blare about rare instances of fraud, remember the legions of honest scientists constantly working to learn how the world really works, whose integrity doesn’t always get the respect and attention it deserves.

    Absence of supersolidity in solid helium in porous vycor glass

    Comments

    rholley
    Double value from this story:

    (1) The ethical part;

    (2) Some physics that I can actually understand.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    car2nwallaby
    Thanks!  Although I have a feeling you probably already understand the physics more than I do.
    vongehr
    The criticism was allowed because it let already established people publish yet more. This is usually NOT the case with the huge amount of nonsense published every day. Look at the memristor scandal or into similar issues in nanotechnology, and you will find that usually, criticism is simply suppressed and science constructs ever more false knowledge.
    car2nwallaby
    Oh I'm sure you can find negative examples, and yes, peer review has problems when the peer reviewers have a vested interest in the status quo interpretation.  So I wouldn't argue that science is perfect, and I wouldn't say that planes don't crash.  But I would say that flying is generally a safe way to travel, and I would say that on the whole science is a noble pursuit of knowledge by hard-working and honest individuals.
    For every ballyhooed scandal there are orders of magnitude more examples of integrity, and I just wanted to give one some press.
    vongehr
    You seem to confuse technology and science. In fact, it is not so much science that drives technology but technology that enables science. Technology is selected through markets and military success etc, not peer review. I know you probably feel that this is completely upside down, because you strongly believe so, but don't even start giving me all those examples as if I don't know them (Maxwell EM field enabled radio blah bah). I am telling you that these are distortions of the actual way science and technology evolve. They are convincing because scientists work hard to present it this way, because their very jobs depend on this narrative.
    car2nwallaby
    I don't quite see the logical connection between my point – "on the whole science is a noble pursuit of knowledge by hard-working and honest individuals" – and your claim – that somehow science does not enable technology.  Of course science and technology co-evolve, but to claim that science does not contribute to technology is meaningless.
    They are convincing because scientists work hard to present it this way
    Right. Scientists: savvy manipulators of public opinion.
    don't even start giving me all those examples as if I don't know them
    Well, if we're going to rule out evidence in favor of baseless, sweeping statements, then I'm not sure I know how to respond.
    vongehr
    to claim that science does not contribute to technology
    Now that is not quite what I said.