Thursday, August 23, 2018

Exaggeration of scientific news: superconductivity

Levitation of a superconducting sheet
In 1986, a team from the IBM research center in Zurich discovered high-temperature superconductivity. Until then, this phenomenon, well known since it was discovered by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911, only occurred at temperatures close to absolute zero. Thanks to the use of ceramic materials made with copper and rare earths, the critical temperature rose first to 35K, and soon after to 92K (Kelvin, or degrees above absolute zero). As a comparison, take into account that the fusion of ice into water takes place at about 273K.
Immediately the media announced this discovery as the door to a new technological revolution. Among the revolutionary applications announced were nuclear fusion, high-speed trains and ships that would move in levitation, the lossless transmission of electrical energy over long distances, supercomputers, and many more. The “fever” of the media grew even more when Bednorz and Müller, members of the team that made the discovery, were awarded the Nobel Prize in just one year, in 1987.
As a proof of that “fever,” I have made a search in the library of a major Spanish newspaper, La Vanguardia. In the three years between 1986 and 1988, this newspaper published 24 news on superconductivity (two every three months). Many of them spoke lyrically about the imminent applications of this revolutionary technology. Let us look at a few examples:
·         5/18/1986, page 49. Headline: Superconductivity. Text: Other applications, still in experimental phase, have to do with the conduction of electricity with superconducting cables... a single superconducting cable 60 centimeters in diameter could supply electricity to a city of the size of New York... In Japan and Germany they are carrying out studies to put into operation a fast train with superconducting technology. This train could be suspended in the air, thanks to the repulsion exerted by two electromagnets, and also be propelled by magnetic forces.
·         3/29/1987, page 43. Headline: Hot superconductors. Text: Superconductors are of great importance in the manufacture of coils for reactors that will allow controlled nuclear fusion in the future.
·         6/7/1987, page 49. Headline: The “fever” of superconductors. Sub-headlines: Multiple applications. Particle accelerators and fusion reactors. Boats, trains and cables. Superchips and measuring devices.
·         10/16/1987, page 36. Headline: A Nobel to a research of great technological importance. Text: These characteristics are especially important in fields such as fusion nuclear power, medical exploration by means of nuclear magnetic resonance, the propulsion of transport systems (trains and ships) and the development of new types of supercomputers.
·         12/11/1988, Science supplement, page 1. Headline: IBM sets a new record in superconductivity. Text quotes Jerry Torrance and Jerry Cuomo saying that they don’t rule out new advances in one of the most revolutionary fields of technology. “It is even possible that the first applications... will be announced quite soon.”
Heike Kamerlingh Onnes,
discoverer of superconductivity
The media bubble was quickly deflated. The dramatic increases in critical temperature that everyone expected never came. Thirty years later, the limit is still at 92K, although an unconfirmed experiment made in 1993 raised it to 138K. The revolutionary applications announced have never appeared. Of course, the media have lost interest in the matter. The newspaper library of La Vanguardia just contains seven news about superconductivity between 2000 and 2013 (one every two years, a frequency 16 times lower than that of 1986-88), despite the fact that a new Nobel Prize was awarded in 2003 to Abrikosov, Ginzburg and Leggett, whose contributions to this branch of physics dated from many years back.
We should remember this when we see the media generating new bubbles, as when they announce immortality, or artificial intelligence (the real one, not what we have now, which has no intelligence) or so many other far-fetched predictions. Most of these attempts to guess the future will fail, but very few people will remember, for memories are short-lived and human imagination has no limits.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Popularization of SciencePrevious Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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