Writer: PengCheng Zhu ‘26
Editor: Jasmine Shum ‘24
The set of physical properties in matter known as superconductivity has long enthralled scientists since its discovery in 1911—and for good reason. A material that is superconductive has no electrical resistance and no magnetic flux fields, which means that the material could be used to transfer electricity across any distance without losing any energy in the process. Beyond that, superconductive materials enable the creation of Maglev trains (magnetic levitation) that are faster, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly than regular trains. Unfortunately, all the current commercial superconductive materials require extremely low temperatures to achieve their superconductive state, rendering them impractical for energy distribution and Maglev trains. Instead, only a few medical equipment like MRI machines and experimental quantum computers can take advantage of the benefits offered by superconductivity at the moment.
But think about how revolutionary it would be if we could have materials that are superconductive at room temperature! We could be using quantum-computing phones that are thousands of times more powerful than current smartphones while sitting inside a fast, frictionless Maglev train, all powered by a perfectly efficient electrical grid that loses no power over any distance. The possibilities are endless; the world would be unrecognizable. So with such vast potentials, why isn’t the world—or even the scientific community—erupting into rapturous joy at the April 2023 publication of a paper describing a new material that becomes superconductive at 21 °C (69 °F) . Sure, the material in question still requires extremely high pressure to be superconductive, but it has improved over its predecessors by cutting the pressure needed by half.
It turns out that allegations of scientific misconduct have bogged down the researchers who discovered the new room-temperature superconductor. Led by physicist Ranga Dias, the team had submitted another paper earlier in Nature regarding the discovery of another material that was superconductive at 14 C. That paper, published in 2020, was met with worldwide acclaim. However, another researcher, Jorge Hirsch, a physicist at the University of California (UC), San Diego, believed that an important set of magnetic measurements in the 2020 paper looked suspiciously similar to another paper’s data from 2009. This culminated in his public accusation in a peer-reviewed paper that Dias’s data were fraudulent which caused Nature to retract Dias’s paper . Dias still maintains that his data are valid and proper, and although no other researchers have been able to reproduce his results, graduate student Hiranya Pasan in Dias’s lab claimed that the team has been able to reproduce their own results from 2020 with the earlier superconductive material .
The debate between Dias and his detractors has become somewhat vitriolic: Dias says that Hirsch “is a troll” and the two have engaged in heated arguments with each other at scientific conferences. With the new 2023 paper, Dias and his research team have painstakingly reported all the recognized signs that establish a material as superconductive. But their controversial 2020 paper and the bitter fight that ensued have damaged their reputation. It also doesn’t help that Dias has been slow to share detailed instructions regarding the recipe of the superconductor, or to let other researchers perform independent analyses of his superconductors.
However, Hirsch has come under fire, too. He is an outspoken critic of B.C.S theory, which was devised in 1957 to explain how superconductors work and has been widely accepted by modern physicists. But under Hirsch’s alternative framework, the materials that Dias is exploring should not be able to become superconductors. Thus, Hirsch’s crusade against Dias’s findings may be more of an inquisition in order to validate his own alternative theory .
At this point, it is impossible to tell whether Dias or Hirsch will be validated by future experiments. It is justified, then, that the response among scientists and the public has been mere cautious optimism about Dias’s room-temperature superconductor rather than outright jubilation . While this type of protracted conflict between scientists may seem unusual, it has happened many times throughout history. For example, the debate regarding how the dinosaurs became extinct has yet to be settled, with a determined minority still maintaining that the cause was volcanic eruptions rather than the impact of an asteroid. That debate regarding dinosaurs is perhaps even more rancorous than the debate regarding superconductors: some scientists involved in the dispute swore to never research that topic again, and others even claimed that they developed serious health problems from the conflict .
Ultimately, from the great arguments between the miasma and germ theory of infection, to between geocentrism and heliocentrism, progress in science has always relied on robust discourse and exchanges between scientists who often may hold different views. While the reality of this discourse can often get ugly and messy, it merely reveals the inherent uncertainty in science as a field driven by imperfect and often irrational humans. But the strength of the scientific method comes from exactly this imperfect discourse: only by rigorously challenging one another’s evidence and conclusions can the better theories be determined and continually improved. So while the dark clouds surrounding superconductor research remain as stormy and tumultuous as ever, the inherent structure of scientific progress means that clarity will eventually emerge. But until then, it’s best to withhold judgment on both Ranga Diaz and Jorge Hirsch.
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[Image] A magnet is suspended over a liquid nitrogen cooled high-temperature superconductor (-200°C). Nov 2005. Peter Nussbaumer. Wikimedia Commons.