Comparing LK-99 Superconductor Hype with Outright Frauds

LK-99 Superconductor and Science Frauds Jan Hendrik Schön and Viktor Ninov

Room temperature superconductivity is several notches below cold fusion as the holy grail of technological innovation, but a breakthrough may be close at hand. When LK-99 was revealed to the world by a team in Korea University, it quickly became a hot topic on the Internet. It did end up not being a room temperature superconductor after all, turning out to be less efficient than copper at room temperature. There was quite a fuss and we ended up with a goose egg, but that’s just par for course with science. Meanwhile, there have been plenty of other cases in scientific study where something got hyped up too much, only to end up as fraud.

It’s just too bad that LK-99 didn’t end up being the miracle material we wished it could be. If it actually worked as intended, we may have been looking at the mouth of a tunnel that may lead us to the promised land of actually practical superconductor computing, magnetic levitation, and so on. However, skepticism in the face of such exciting discoveries is healthy. It’s not the first time an innovation of such magnitude was announced, only to be exposed as fraud later on.

The folly of scientific discovery and technological innovation at the rapid pace it has been going since the Industrial Revolution is that scientists and inventors can get so ahead of themselves in their pursuit of glory. Some of them may be tempted to take shortcuts or even commit outright fraud. Since scientific work relies so much on grants and sponsorships, there’s financial incentive to “fake it till you make it” — a mantra that became the warcry of would-be entrepreneurs, conartists, and poseurs everywhere.

While the world awaited with bated breath on how LK-99 would’ve panned out, hoping for it to be the real deal and usher in a new era of technology, people were throwing up their daydream fantasies. We had the same thing with graphene, which is still promising with its practical applications to this day. However, bringing that promise to life has been a challenge thus far. Even if graphene in its current form has been around for almost two decades now, we have yet to see mass adoption. It turns out that creating single molecular layers of carbon in a lattice pattern is not that easy. Maybe yet another innovation will make it possible.

Anyway, let’s take a look at some cases of scientific fraud and misconduct that the LK-99 announcement reminds me of.

NOTE: I started writing this when the LK-99 hype train just got off the station, but I’m too slow with my research and writing process. Therefore, I only put this out when the hype is already dead.

It’s also an excuse for me to share videos made by BobbyBroccoli through his excellent YouTube channel that now focuses on stories of scientific frauds and controversies.

Jan Hendrik Schön: Turning Plastics into Superconductors

It’s not the first time that a wonder superconductor got such massive levels of hype. That just goes to show that room temperature superconductors are just as amazing as people with room temperature IQs are annoying.

He was a German physicist who apparently came upon breakthroughs with semiconductors from seemingly out of nowhere while working for California-based Bell Labs in the early 2000s. Jan Hendrik Schön was awarded various prestigious prizes for his work. His findings were published in both Science and Nature, the two most prominent scientific journals in the world.

However, after a honeymoon period, his story started to unravel as other research groups attempted to replicate his results, only to come up with nothing. His use of organic materials to create superconductive transistors was going to spark a revolution that would see computing turn away from silicon-based electronics and continue Moore’s law.

In organic chemistry, ‘organic’ compounds are simply anything containing carbon. With Schön’s work, that meant plastics — organic materials composed of polymers. While not as cheap and abundant as silicon, such organic materials exhibiting superconductivity would more than make up for that. Even better if it can be used in lasers.

Organic superconductors are nothing new, but what made Schön different was that he claimed extraordinary ability to transform organic materials into superconductors. He basically had the Midas touch, but even better since a superconductor would be an even better conductor of electricity than gold itself.

While an otherwise quiet and unassuming man, Schön shot for the moon and beyond with his apparent discoveries. The amount of hype it generated in the physics world and the computing world, especially for that time, was unprecedented. If online virality were a thing back then, he’d be enjoying the same level of viral fame that the LK-99 team are experiencing now.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. It turned out that he was making everything up. Schön would be exposed as a fraud, terminated from Bell Labs, have his awards rescinded, and even lose his PhD — the heaviest of blows to a scientist. He would later return to Germany, maintain a low profile, and take a job at an engineering firm.

Victor Ninov: Creating Superheavy Elements Out of Thin Air

Let’s now go to the realm of superheavy elements, a field of study in chemistry that we can say is still valuable, but not immediately practical. The main purpose of creating new elements is to fill the periodic table, and that’s mostly it. Every element past the 92nd, namely uranium, is likely a product of bumping two lighter elements together in a particle accelerator.

If a new element is created and recorded (because they tend to decay in less than a second), they’ll be put on the periodic table with a temporary name, then later named by whoever discovered it, either after themselves, their predecessors, or the place they work in.

Victor Ninov, a Bulgarian physicist working in Berkeley, could have had an element named Ninovium on the periodic table, whether it was to be element 116 or 118. However, it turned out that he was making all of his results up. All the results of his research came out of a data analysis program that he developed and held sole control over.

He had previously been a co-discoverer of elements 110, 111, and 112, and that reputation was why his colleagues had believed him for so long. His big mistake was pretending to have discovered element 118. When no one else was able to replicate the same result, he was soon exposed. Once it came out that it was all a fabrication, his house of cards quickly fell down.

The Ninov affair resulted in stricter guidelines for co-authoring papers, along with increased ethical training and oversight at research institutions. It happened almost simultaneously with the Schön affair. Both incidents amplified each other’s impact on their respective fields and on science at large. You couldn’t have better timing for scientific misconduct.

Ninov retired from physics, but continued to live in California with his wife. His true motives continue to be known only by himself.

What’s the Big Deal with Superconductors?

Let’s look at what superconductors are and why creating a room temperature superconductor can be considered a major scientific breakthrough.

Superconductivity is the ability of a material to conduct electricity with zero electrical resistance. That lack of resistance yields no loss of energy through heat during transmission of current. That level of efficiency makes superconductors immensely useful for a wide range of applications and potentially be better at them than semiconductors.

You must take note of the following when talking about superconductors.

Zero Resistance

The main reason why superconductors don’t output heat, not just because they operate in cold temperatures. Resistance is why heating elements in stoves and space heaters do what they do, and it’s also why CPUs get toasty. Having zero resistance also means little to no loss when electricity is carried over long distances, which can also help with power transmission.

Meissner Effect

This is the phenomenon of perfect diamagnetism that allows the material to repel magnetic fields, thus avoiding electromagnetic interference that tends to plague electronics. When a material transitions into a superconducting state, it expels almost all magnetic fields from within.

Critical Temperature (Tc)

The material behaves like a normal conductor when it’s above the critical temperature. But below it, that’s when it exhibits superconductivity. The superconductors we have right now need to be incredibly cold to become superconductive. Even so-called “high-temperature superconductors” have to be at around 77 K (-196.2°C) or lower to hit superconductivity.

The promise of LK-99 having superconductivity at room temperature will make superconductors a lot more practical in real world applications.

Two Types of Superconductors

Superconductors are classified into two categories based on their response to magnetic fields. Type I superconductors expel all magnetic fields and sharply transition to superconductive state. Type II superconductors allow some magnetic flux to penetrate and tend to have a more gradual transition to superconductive state.

Numerous Practical Applications

This technology has tons of practical applications, such as more powerful magnets for MRI machines, particle accelerators, and maglev trains. They can also be used for scientific research, especially for quantum computers and fundamental physics experiments.

What’s with the LK-99 Hype? What’s Wrong with Semiconductors?

Our current computing technologies are built on silicon-based semiconductors, and they’re pretty damn good at this stage. We now have multicore processors that run the world. An 8-core 16-thread processor that costs around $220 is several times more powerful than the IBM Deep Blue supercomputer that defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov over 25 years ago.

However, silicon has hit a glass ceiling due to heat. CPUs are now running so hot that processors are unable to get past 5 gigahertz without threatening to burn houses down. Most high-end processors now have to be limited to around 4.0 to 4.2 GHz at most in stock because going past that will require immense amounts of cooling.

We now have the best possible thermal solutions out there. The high level of engineering that companies like Noctua and EKWB have taken CPU cooling to the most insane levels we’ve seen yet, and they’re slowly losing the battle. For instance, the Intel Core i9 13900KS is notorious for being “uncoolable” due to its 350W TDP, especially when it turbo-boosts.

With the monsters we have nowadays that only grow more and more untameable each iteration, we need a breakthrough soon. We’re already seeing stagnation in the resurgence of AMD after years of Intel domination and subsequent malaise. Meanwhile, Nvidia is making waves with their GPUs and AI technology, but their products continue to be overpriced as the company finally hit the trillion-dollar mark in valuation.

If you live in a region of the world with really cold winters, you could have a computer with such a processor instead of a space heater and you may just avoid hypothermia.

It’s not to say that silicon computing will have to go away. On the contrary, this makes the case for silicon even more robust. Silicon is practically sand, which is everywhere on Earth. If the superconductor material those scientists are trying to push isn’t anywhere near as cost-effective as silicon, then it will flop. Also, it will have to be easy to manufacture.

We’ve seen a similar innovation that fell by the wayside due to being hard to mass-produce. Graphene was supposed to be the next big thing, but we don’t see a lot of graphene stuff because it hasn’t been easy to make sheets of it in mass quantities thus far. We’ll have to wait for a breakthrough in graphene manufacturing before it can become ubiquitous like carbon fiber.

The LK-99 superconductor has to be cheap and easy to manufacture for it to be viable. Right now, we’re waiting on whether it’s the real deal as a room temperature superconductor in the first place. There’s a lot on the line for this project, and we have yet to see if it truly is the real deal even weeks after its initial unveiling.

Other Cases of Scientific Misconduct Outside of Physics

Let’s venture into other scientific fields, which have also seen misconduct and fraud. You can expect fields like medicine to be rife with it since that directly affects people’s health and lives, thus can yield tremendous financial benefit if you’re able to come up with something that people are desperate to get. If you’re able to come up with a cancer cure out of nowhere, you sure as hell will get a boost.

Here are a couple more scientists who flew too close to the sun.

Hwang Woo-suk: King of Cloning

I had to mention this guy since the LK-99 team is based in Korea University. I plan to write more about this guy in another blog post, where I compare him with a great Korean hero. Tune in for that one because I’m actually proud of coming up with the idea for that piece.

I’m certainly going to get into even more trouble for this. Yes, the LK-99 team being from South Korea did remind me of Hwang Woo-suk, the once–heralded messiah of cloning. He was not just a scientist who looked like he was doing miraculous work, but a national hero who even got a commemorative stamp for his yet-to-be accomplishments. He hadn’t even put his supposed discoveries to good use, yet he was already being hyped up.

Cloning and stem cells are in a different scientific field from superconductors, but the hype generated by Hwang’s supposed innovations was due to how revolutionary they could be. Being able to clone whole new organs can definitely save lives, and being able to create and transplant stem cells easily is even more so. You can heal body parts and extend lifespan with stem cells, which have been making waves in recent years.

However, during the early to mid-2000s, only embryonic stem cells were available. It was only in 2007 when induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells were discovered by Japanese researchers, which got rid of the need for egg cells and the ethical hang-ups that used to be inherent with stem cell research. With anti-abortion gorillas off their backs, biotech firms could finally go ham.

Pluripotency in stem cells leads us to the next fraud.

Haruko Obokata: Stem Cell Supernova

I kinda feel bad for this woman because she got thoroughly washed by public outrage. Haruko Obokata became a celebrity scientist when she came out with her discovery of stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. It was a whole new way of creating stem cells that could revolutionize the field and make it really accessible to everyone.

Her story parallels that of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the ill-fated biotech company Theranos. However, Haruko’s story concluded years earlier and unlike Holmes who was a college dropout who was more like an entrepreneur than a scientist, Haruko was a doctor who was fully hands-on with the science.

The Haruko hype train went so hard that they even gossiped about her personal life, fashion choices, and affinity for girly things. While Hwang Woo-suk was painted as close to a modern day buddha in South Korea, Haruko Obokata was the Sailor Moon of scientists in Japan. They even sold the traditional Japanese housewife aprons inspired by the ones she would wear in place of lab coats, which further sold her public image as a Japanese scientist helping with the progress of the nation.

When it came out that she fabricated her results, they didn’t just throw her under the bus — they choke-slammed her under the Shinkansen bullet train. The Japanese media went insanely hard on her, likely due to cultural misogyny and the amount of responsibility she shouldered throughout the entire project. It was also found out that she may have plagiarized twenty pages of her doctoral dissertation from some website, thus creating grounds for her to lose her PhD.

On the other hand, she was likely a scapegoat as she didn’t work alone, but the other guy’s career got off unscathed. Also, her mentor committing suicide as a result of the scandal certainly did not help matters. The last public sighting of her was in December 2019, when she was spotted working in a cake shop in Tokyo.

What’s the Point of This Blog Post?

The takeaway here is to not get swept away by the hype. If the science is good and the thing is legit, then it’s going to be revolutionary whether you’re hyped or not. It’s not wrong to care, but you have to put science first. The data doesn’t care about your feelings, so check your emotions and just let the science take its course.

As mentioned, I started writing this blog post when the LK-99 hype was still very much alive. As with all things Sonny Go, I only finished when the hype has been thoroughly massacred by facts and logic, so my penis is very much like Ben Shapiro right now — inverted and bone-dry. But the blog needs more content, so I put it out anyway in hopes of getting even an iota of attention to make my yearly hosting payments somehow worth it.

EDIT(13AUG2023@10:30AM): This video by Asianometry, a YouTube channel that pays close attention to the semiconductor industry, among other things, published this video that looks into what would’ve happened if LK-99 did indeed turn out to be the real deal. He concluded that it wouldn’t have done much and the semiconductor industry would’ve chugged along as usual. It would’ve been a nice-to-have, but not super revolutionary after all.


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