Thursday, October 04, 2012

Science and its self-correcting nature.

Eight years ago, Moses Chan of Penn State made big news by publishing experimental evidence that appeared to be consistent with supersolidity - a hypothesized state in which atomic vacancies in a solid (in this case, pressurized crystals of 4He at very low temperatures) could move without dissipation, analogous to the quantum coherent, viscosity-free flow of atoms in a superfluid.  I've mentioned this before (1) (2).    Now, as written up in the latest issue of Science, it seems like supersolidity (at least in the system that had been studied) is dead, and a major killer was a paper by the original authors of the first claim. 

This happens sometimes.  Observations and their interpretation can seem very very compelling, and yet later someone will think of some subtle issue that had not been considered previously.  That's the nature of science.  Unfortunately, sometimes the popular impression that gets conveyed is that because of these rare situations, science is no more trustworthy than random guesses or opinions.  My own thesis advisor told me more than once that it's ok to be wrong in science occasionally, and the best outcome is to be the one who discovers your own mistake!  (He and coauthors had published a PRL claiming that an effect they saw was taking place in solid 3He, when it turned out that it really was happening in the liquid, which they then also published, correcting their own mistaken interpretation.  It worked out well for them.)

That reminds me:  time for the annual Nobel speculation, since the physics prize comes next Tuesday.  Place your bets below....  (blogging will continue to be slow due to multiple other writing constraints right now)


Gautam Menon said...

Peter Higgs (and other theorists, likely Englert only, despite claims from Hagen-Guralnik-Kibble) for predicting the Higgs boson, especially since Higgs is getting old. The experimental prize for the Higgs discovery will probably await more confirmation. I don't think it will be Berry-Aharonov-Anandan this time, nor Bennett-Brassard-Wouters, but who knows. Maybe Carbon nanotubes (Ijima) this time, given their importance, but possibly in Chemistry and not in Physics.

Anonymous said...

Considering the speed of graphene, I think Zhang/Kane/Molenkamp may be a possibility. I feel that the emphasis on applications is decreasing anyway. Moreover, "new phases of matter" have scored well (and fast) in the last few decades.

Douglas Natelson said...

I agree that the Higgs seems the most likely. I don't know enough about the history to know who would share it, except that it seems exceedingly unlikely that Anderson would get a piece of another one.

Any thoughts out there on chemistry? (Besides Ijima for nanotubes.) Whitesides? A single-molecule spectroscopy prize, maybe? It would be fun if my new faculty colleague Nicolaou got one for his synthetic work.

Anonymous said...

The fundamental parameters such as spin have not been measured's really premature to give a theory prize no matter how old the theorists are today.

I really think the prize should be an experimental prize... with the entire CMS and Atlas collaborations getting the physics prize rather than three arbitrarily chosen senior people. The Nobel prize risks being further falling into irrelevance if it does not reward collaborative efforts in the 21at century.

Anonymous said...


My Nobel Prize bet is also the Higgs Boson.

With regards to the blog post: I happen to agree, I feel that making mistakes is a natural and expected part of science. Science progresses because of it.

But, I don't know if this is just me, but it seems like the sociology of science and scientific publishing today is such that this way of thinking is not popular. I feel like papers have to be polished and perfect, and that it's not okay to send 'progress reports' of what your results are showing.

Do you think this might be more true these days than in past years? Any thoughts?

Steve said...

Higgs is clearly the front-runner.

If not the Higgs?... well, not Ijima. They had a chance to include him on the graphene prize and they did not do so. I don't anymore think Aharonov is a strong contender anymore once I discovered the Ehrenberg-Siday paper which predates Aharonov-Bohm by ten years. For quantum, I think Bennett-Brassard-Wiesner would be a better combination than Bennett-Brassard-Wouters. Too early for topological insulators (but coming sometime certainly). Does no one ever think neutrino mass is important? (Yes, I know, it was a collaboration and it isn't clear who gets the prize.. but still... I think it is every bit as important as the Higgs).

Anonymous said...

Lol, so far for the predictive powers of a bunch of physicists.
Clearly the Nobel committee doesn't abide by a mantra that allows quantification of expectations, or obviously, reproducibility :-)