There’s deep scepticism about an IISc duo’s claims of achieving superconductivity at room temperature owing to their silence on the study.
Bengaluru: The buzz surrounding a potentially breakthrough paper by two IISc researchers has begun to die down amid their reluctance to discuss the study with colleagues.
All that’s left is deep doubt about the authenticity of the study.
In July, the IISc supervisor-student team of Anshu Pandey and Dev Kumar Thapa claimed to have uncovered the scientific equivalent of the holy grail: Achieving superconductivity at room temperature.
The innovation entails the seamless transmission of electricity from source to destination without any loss of current on the way, a feat that at present requires conductors to be cooled below its critical temperature in a fairly expensive process.
The use of such materials dramatically improves electricity generation and consumption. If and when the costs come down, they are expected to be used everywhere – from magnetic-levitation trains (like Hyperloop), power grids and telecommunication, to household appliances like refrigerators.
Having submitted their study to the premier science journal Nature, the two released a preprint version of the paper on research-sharing platform arXiv.
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) physicist named Brian Skinner subsequently spotted a possible anomaly in the paper, and posted it on Twitter.
What followed was not just scrutiny, but also a convoluted drama containing allegations of fraud, and a possible bid to silence criticism of the study.
All the two researchers have said in their defence so far is that they are getting their results validated.
“This process takes time. Without validation, the synthesis and device fabrication details are speculative and will add to further confusion,” Pandey had told ThePrint.
Nature’s pre-publication embargo bars researchers from discussing their studies with the media before they are approved, to ensure their findings are vetted by peers before being peddled as fact.
Even so, some fellow scientists have expressed surprise at the duo’s reluctance to discuss the findings with colleagues — a usual practice in the community and one allowed under the embargo.
“I would imagine that the embargo from the journal is a secondary consideration, given that, to some extent, their reputation is on the line here,” said Skinner.
“Lots of people are waiting for their next comments,” he added, “The predominant mood right now seems to be scepticism of their results.”
“My understanding is that not too many people take the claim seriously anymore and are unlikely to pursue it if the authors do not come out with fresh information,” said Pratap Raychaudhuri, a condensed matter physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
On paper, the duo will be free to speak about their data, samples, methods, and experiment after the peer review, which has taken surprisingly long for the study.
Who is Wiles Licher?
Discussions surrounding the study hit a spot of mystery when someone allegedly tried to impersonate leading theoretical physicist T.V. Ramakrishnan, a professor at Benaras Hindu University who has expressed faith in the duo’s study.
Raychaudhuri, who had expressed concerns about the study in a Facebook post, received an email from a sender claiming to be Ramakrishnan (the ID was
firstname.lastname@example.org, protonmail being a super-secure email network). The email, which asked Raychaudhuri to not criticise the team, was later discovered to be fake.
The mystery deepened as Skinner and Raychaudhuri received friend requests on Facebook from a now-defunct account in the name of a ‘Wiles Licher’ that was created just before the paper was submitted to arXiv.
Nearly a month and an FIR later, not much is known about the email impersonator or Wiles Licher, identified as a fan of Julius Caesar on the Facebook profile. At this point, no one seems to care much either.
“The Wiles Licher saga is probably dead,” said Raychaudhuri. “In retrospect I think it was a prankster looking for some excitement.”
Skinner is also of a similar opinion, saying that his attempts to de-anagram the name led nowhere. Furthermore, he was contacted over email by a Jules Licher, who might or might not have been the same person.
“The simplest explanation is that they are the same person,” said Skinner. “But I really don’t know who this person is,” he added.
“There were some indications, however, that this person is located in Bengaluru, and he/she clearly had some knowledge about the experiments and the people thinking about them,” he said.
Skinner contacted two people who the Facebook account had sent friend requests to. Both of them, based in Bengaluru, had no idea who this person was.
“I am disinclined to give this person any more attention,” concluded Skinner in his tweet threads about the story.
IISER Pune attempts to recreate results
Meanwhile, scientists at The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, used the patchy information available about Pandey and Thapa’s experiments to reproduce their results. The experiment failed.
The three-member team, comprising Satishchandra Ogale from the department of physics and Centre for Energy Science, and his two students, Abhijit Biswas and Swati Parmar, wrote that they “do not find any signature of superconductivity in pulsed laser deposited Au/Ag modulated nanostructured thin films”.
This gold-silver material’s structure is not identical to what Thapa and Pandey used, although the material itself is the same. Ogale and team’s paper also states that their objective wasn’t to prove or disprove the IISc study, but to test if a similar material made through a different technique would yield positive results.
“It is possible that the difference in microstructure plays a role,” said Raychaudhuri.
“Though I personally find it unlikely that one microstructure will give superconductivity at room temperature whereas another will not give anything down to -268 C,” he added.
According to a report in The Wire, Pandey and Thapa have shared their samples with another group from IISc for validation, adding that the former has a reputation as a thorough and meticulous experimentalist.
Fellow scientists, the report adds, believe the two may have very good reasons for not revealing their samples and methods.
For now, a silence has descended around the study while the science community waits for Nature’s embargo to lift, either when the paper passes peer review or when it fails.
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