The discovery of high Tc Superconductivity
Case study for the high level conversation
(PROmoting integrity in the use of RESearch results)
Superconductors were discovered by the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes at 1911, in Leiden, The Netherlands. Despite the fact that physical properties like “zero electrical resistance” and “complete expulsion of magnetic flux fields” are definitely extremely useful for a myriad of applications, they occur in extremely low temperatures, near absolute zero. This posed an insurmountable barrier for the application of superconductors at the time of their discovery. For more than three quarters of a century the critical temperature for the appearance of superconductivity raised from 4.2 K up to 23 K, a rather hectic progress. As a result, the large scale application of superconductors demanded the use of expensive liquid helium, rendering large scale application of superconductors unfeasible. The only way out of this deadlock was the invention of high temperature or high TC superconductors, meaning the production of superconducting materials with TC higher than liquid nitrogen temperature (i.e. TC ≥ 77 K), since liquid nitrogen is cheaper than liquid helium, by a factor of 100. High TC superconductors had been turned into a chimera, while the related scientific research was sometimes described (not always with the best of intentions) as the quest for the “Holy Grail” of materials science or modern Alchemy.
This situation changed in 1986, when two IBM scientists working in Zurich, Switzerland, Johann Georg Bednorz and Karl Alex Müller demonstrated superconductivity in a metal oxide well above the previous temperature threshold, namely at 30 K. Their publication did not cause great excitement. The scientific literature abounded with publications announcing alleged high TC superconductors, only to be withdrawn after the first failed replication tests. The scientific community on superconductors was tired and disappointed, showing signs of indifference. However, physicist Paul Chu from the University of Houston, based on the above publication of the IBM scientists, developed a completely new material that became a superconductor below 93 K, i.e. well above the temperature of cheap liquid nitrogen. This invention could trigger a major technological revolution, a breakthrough of monumental magnitude, since it rendered commercial applications of superconductors possible.
Figure 1: Tc rising – an overview. The “Boom” sign indicates the revolutionary invention of Paul Chu and his research group.
The story of the revolutionary invention from Paul Chu and his research group reveals numerous examples of breaches of research integrity. The stakes were extremely high; at the beginning of 1987 Chu was a potential Nobel Prize in Physics laureate and his Institute (the University of Houston) could benefit (as long as the right patenting strategy was followed) from an invention that was bound to create a multibillion dollar market.
In the section below, we present cases of (a) plagiarism, (b) data manipulation, (c) scientific fraud, (d) application of questionable research practices and sloppy science, (e) efforts of manipulation of researchers by policy makers (based on arguments of national security) and (f) efforts of manipulation of researchers by research administrators (based on arguments of economic benefits), which were directly related to the so-called “race for the superconductor”.