Probably the biggest (or at least buzziest) science news of the moment is the possibility of a room temperature superconductor. You may remember we went down this particular road a few years ago. At that time, superconductivity was achieved at not-quite-but-close-enough-to-room temperature but with radically impractical pressures. This time, the candidate material (LK-99) is a superconductor at warmer-than-room temperature and ambient pressure. The catch for the moment is some uncertainty about confirmation and reproducibility.
The results were posted in a preprint, meaning a manuscript that has not yet been peer-reviewed or accepted for publication. So there is still a chance that further scrutiny will reveal an issue, some reason why the result is a fluke or the result of some other phenomenon rather than a scalable solution to the superconducting problem. We’re in the scientific version of the sixth or seventh inning of a possible perfect game in baseball. There’s a growing sense among everyone paying attention that we could be about to witness history and yet also a palpable awareness a less exciting outcome is more likely. Further answers could come quickly–in fact, I’m writing this a little ahead of my usual schedule so I can go on vacation and there may have been further developments already. The materials involved are not exotic, so lots of folks could potentially replicate the work. Confirmation could also take some time if it turns out the fabrication process is more exacting than expected. Nevertheless, the potential payoff is too valuable to not pursue to the end.
By way of reminder, we already have some uses for superconductors which are costly because of the need to keep the material very cold, as in liquid helium cold. MRI machines are a well known example. There is only so much helium on the planet, and every year some of it floats up into the atmosphere never to be available again, while basically no new helium is made. Decoupling MRI technology from liquid helium would make it more sustainable, not to mention likely cheaper and more accessible. And then there are other potential uses of superconductors which we could practically explore that were otherwise not feasible. Some fusion technology uses superconductors, and those fusion processes would get an efficiency boost and thus closer to net energy production if we don’t have to incorporate the superconductor cooling.
Since I can’t offer any substantive insight on the possible futures of LK-99 specifically, I wanted to expand on the role of speculation and hype in science more broadly. I was recently in conversation with someone who was concerned about some of the language used in origin of life research papers. His concern was that speculative statements about what might or could have happened in prebiotic history run the risk of getting blown out of proportion in subsequent popular press accounts and so on down the telephone line until the lay person on the street believes that scientists have actually made life from abiotic chemistry. I recognize that what the wider public understands about science can diverge significantly from reality; I’m less clear on whether small tweaks to the wording of the primary literature can meaningfully impact that outcome. And I think we’d lose something if we eliminated such speculation and contextualizing altogether from the literature.
We could imagine a world in which scientific papers were strictly about the data, basically just the methods and the results. Such papers could be more useful in some settings. Maybe they’d be better for training AIs to do science. And maybe they’d be less likely to get overblown or misinterpreted by the press–if for no other reason than they’d be harder to read for non-experts. But while the primary purpose of the literature is to communicate with other practitioners in specific disciplines, it does serve other purposes which might be lost. For example, we need to engage and inspire the next generation of scientists. If the current generation never creates a vision for where the field might go in the future, a next generation might not get interested enough to pursue that future. We’re now in the realm of psychological necessity rather than logical necessity, but psychology is real and matters too.
If instead we leave scientific papers alone, we could still change the way science is reported in the press and discussed on blogs and social media. I’m more sympathetic that reform here would be worthwhile. The incentive structure we currently have encourages large volumes of content with attention-grabbing headlines. Clearly that can lead to hype cycles and rushes to judgement which probably should be tempered. But here too we can’t go all the way to zero. If folks are never excited about science, they won’t want to fund it or encourage their kids to study it. It’s good to see science as something to engage with and root for, even if it doesn’t always pan out, just like baseball benefits from the excitement around almost-but-in-the-end-not-so-perfect games.
Of course it is possible to go too far. For reporting, too much unjustified hype too often leads to disappointment and disillusionment. And for scientists authoring papers, you don’t want your speculations to be labeled ‘woo’, a fanciful melange of abstractions connected by imaginative gossamer, too mercurial to even have the chance of being wrong. Much better to be just plain incorrect. That way if you do manage to inspire others to follow in your footsteps, they have a chance to realize you and they are wrong and move on to another vein. Conversely, much worse to be so beholden to your vision that you go beyond acceptable protocols in an attempt to make it a reality. The last room temperature semiconductor paper we talked about has been retracted and other semiconductor research from those scientists has been called into question. I suspect such actions undermine trust in scientific institutions more than qualified hypotheses about the distant past.
Still, we have to try things which may not work or we’ll be stuck with the science we’ve got. And if we’re going to go where no one has gone before, we might as well do so boldly.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.