Sunday, January 29, 2017

Another Defeat for Science: "Metallic Hydrogen"




This blob is supposed to be "metallic hydrogen" according to the claim of a group of Harvard scientists. Maybe. For sure, it is another disaster for the reputation of science and of scientists.


Another day, another disaster for Science. A group of researchers from Harvard claimed of having obtained for the first time "metallic hydrogen" in their laboratory. That gave rise to a series of improbable claims about the cornucopia of abundance that humankind could obtain from the discovery. Especially lyrical was "The Independent", in an article that was soon retracted and replaced with a more sober one their page, where they now say it was all a mistake. But the first article contained such gems as:

Now, in a stunning act of modern-day alchemy, scientists at Harvard University have finally succeeded in creating a tiny amount of what is the rarest, and possibly most valuable, material on the planet, 

metallic hydrogen could theoretically revolutionise technology, enabling the creation of super-fast computers, high-speed levitating trains and ultra-efficient vehicles and dramatically improving almost anything involving electricity. And it could also allow humanity to explore outer space as never before.

And more like this, and thank God they didn't mention flying cars but they got close.

Now, let's examine this story. First of all, "metallic hydrogen" is a legitimate target of investigation. It was theoretically predicted already about a century ago and believed to exist in the core of giant planets. From here onward, however, the whole story is just a mix of fantasy and bad science.

The claim comes from a test in which the researchers placed a sample of hydrogen inside a diamond anvil and compressed it at very high pressures. At some point, they saw something shiny appearing and they concluded that it was "metallic hydrogen." Immediately afterward, they proceeded to publish their story with all the associated outlandish claims of spaceships, alchemy, ultra-efficient vehicles, etc.

Now, when you start a career as a scientist, you are told that

1) Your experiments should be repeatable.

2) There be should be always proof - say, a blank test - that what you claim is not an artifact of your experimental setup.

3) You should never claim anything for which you have no evidence.

Consider this as a checklist and you'll see that the Harvard researchers should mark all three items as "failed." (1) Unbelievable but true: they didn't repeat their experiment, they didn't make a blank experiment, and they engaged in wild fantasies on what their result could mean or, at least, they didn't object on such fantasies being reported over the press.

Note that it is perfectly possible that the blob in the anvil could turn out to be metallic hydrogen but, at present, there is no justification for this early claim. Besides, there is strictly zero proof that metallic hydrogen could turn out to be stable at or near room temperature and hence useful for the multiple claimed miracles. To say nothing of the fact that a diamond anvil processes micrograms and it would be interesting to calculate how many of these anvils would be needed to produce the tons of fuel needed to power a spaceship (hint: trillions).

More evidence, if it was ever needed, of the general decline of science, underfunded, poorly organized, pushed and pulled in all directions at the same time by politicians, businesses, journalists, the public, and more - a disaster. And the results are what you would expect: the general defeat of science that we are witnessing nowadays.

The big problem, here, is that a lot of people are clearly starting to perceive that some scientists are trying to fool them. They don't like that and they may well arrive at the conclusion that all scientists are trying to fool them. And that's very bad because there are still plenty of good scientists who are producing good science and who are trying to alert humankind of the dangers ahead. But, in the general sinking of the scientific ship, bad and good science are lumped together and sent heading to the bottom.

Can this trend be reversed? Hard to say but, at least, we should do something to avoid that the overinflated ego of some scientists continues to lead science into this kind of disasters.




(1) Incidentally, this is exactly the same series of failures that we can attribute to Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann when they claimed to have discovered "cold fusion" in 1989. An even worse defeat for science, whose consequences are still felt.



19 comments:

  1. "To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week's newspapers." N.N.Taleb

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    1. Even better, to look at how Italian newspapers were describing the events of the 2nd world war as they were taking place. I do it, sometimes, it is really sobering

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  2. Ugo:

    Stanley and Martin were my p-chem professors. So I am a bit defensive. They are great guys.

    You have to be a little more forgiving of them. The administration at the University of Utah during that period of time were mad. They pushed the faculty to publish anything and try anything (Remember the Jarvik-7) to put them out there as a premier school. The pressure on them was incredible and the PR types at the Park Building (Administration) were running the propaganda mill overtime. Couple this with the "get there first" race between them and their erstwhile collaborators at the hated BYU.

    They were smart as hell and there is something there, whether or not it has the chance to be useful is another couple of decades work. What they weren't was sophisticated. They got caught up in the horrible cycle of press releases and University prestige and were thrown to the wolves.

    I would posit that the funny looking blob in the picture above is a close relative of Marty and Stanley's calorimeter. Something to be sacrificed at the altar of public relations and advertising.

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    1. That's right: one of the reasons for the disaster is the tremendous pressure that university administrations place on their research staff. I know something about how life is in highly rated institutions, the MIT, Stanford, and I worked in Berkeley myself (which wasn't so terribly bad in this sense, but not without pressure). So, you are caught in this horrible hamster wheel called "publish or perish" and the result is sloppy work pushed as if it were the miracle that will save the world. So, I understand Fleischmann and Pons from a human viewpoint, but the scientific train wreck they generated is unforgivable.

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    2. Ugo:

      I would tend to think of Stanley and Marty as a car in the train wreck instead of the engine pulling the train.

      Science/technology has been garnering misses at an accelerating rate since the late 40's. I really do remember serious articles on the "coming ice age" and I was unfortunately involved in the abortion of science that was the Jarvik.

      Science as practiced since the 70's is kind of an extended exercise in "dick-matching". You don't make progress to A-list socially unless you are a ruthless self-promoter.

      The sad part is, the scientists who are best at self-promotion are usually not the best scientists.

      What is really sad is when good scientists get their lives and their work hijacked to forward the careers and prestige of a struggling institution.

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    3. Well said. About the contrast of self-promotion and reality, if you have some experience in electrochemistry, you can find a beautiful example here: https://www.ted.com/talks/donald_sadoway_the_missing_link_to_renewable_energy

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    4. @Degringolade " I really do remember serious articles on the 'coming ice age' "

      Another glaciation was expected in a few thousand years, although it might not happen for 50,00 years due to CO2 emissions.

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    5. Did you read the actual paper or just the press release?

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    6. The story that scientists were worried about a "the coming ice age" is much overinflated; but not completely false, either. It is all part of the question of trust. If you mistrust a person, you'll find all sort of details that will confirm the fact that you shouldn't trust her.

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    7. Ugo:

      I think that it is more than trust. I would posit that it is the level of humility.

      I think that what society is grappling with is the mundane activity of how one deals with pompous asses.

      For the most part, climate science, and even the work that goes into works like "The Limits to Growth", are estimates of the future derived from current conditions. The predictions like global warming and the depletion of resources derive from some pretty damn good models and I tend to trust them.

      But, if you dig into the work (My first edition of Limits to Growth is pretty damn beat up from being dug into) most real scientists assign probabilities and the chances of being wrong.

      That isn't happening of late. Now, when a scientist gets up to propound a theory, most scientists present it as a fact that cannot be disputed. Usually anyone questioning the "fact" is sneered at and sometimes even presented with ad hominum attacks. The difference between a scientist and a pompous ass is self-reflection. A scientist comes up with the best theory he can and throws it out into the free for all, then listens to comments and questions and modifies/defends/discards the theory on the strength or weakness of the feedback.

      A pompous ass is just certain that he is right

      Climate change and resource depletion are the best theories out there. I think that the greater part of the work done is solid and supportive of the theory. I am not in any way a climate denier.

      But, it is still just a sweet theory. It has moved past belief, it has wandered through a couple of hypotheses, laid down a couple of sweet theories, been supported by quite a few facts, but it just hasn't made it all the way to a law.

      And scientists who act like dicks just aren't going to help it get there.

      All the best

      John

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  3. I'm an Earth scientist with a physics background and former interest in experimental high pressure/high temperature mineralogy.

    This paper was embarrassing to read, and the hyperbolic spin on it even more so. I agree entirely with the physicists publicly questioning how it ever got through peer review.

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  4. Mom taught third grade and she remembers Foxs show the Simpson's as a turning point where kids just got louder and unruly. I look at the arts and i see noisy "artist" getting the attention. Who are the rock stars and movies stars getting the most attention, and money. It hurts that science is not special, but hasn't it always been the redheaded stepchild of buisness.

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  5. Embarassment and shame in adults (it can be a blunt instrument and not to be encouraged in children)we hope might be a useful corrective. But 'Save the World science' is going to get a vey bad name, going from bad to worse. I can remember listing the 'impossible promises' put out in the name of biotechnology more than 20 years ago.

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  6. Science is a human activity conducted by humans who are products of their social environment. In a society that values competitive dominance and the commensurate material rewards that come with it above everything else, it is not surprising that scientists often behave according to the value system of the society that surrounds them. The value system embodied in the scientific method is diametrically opposed to the faith based belief systems of religion, psychological manipulation, politics, and class dominance that characterize civil society.

    Science has a well defined value system that demands testable statement of theories, verification, repeatabiliy, and review by peers. It is this process that distinguishes Science from all other approaches to understanding how the world works, and makes it the most reliable source of knowledge that humans have developed.

    People wearing lab coats who allow the pressures of the university or corporate environment to determine their work product are not scientists but merely propagandists for the dominant order. It is at this point that I part from the ongoing critique of "science" that has been presented on this site in the past few weeks. Unless one is willing to identify the root causes of "fake science", they will end up with a variation of "if only they would behave like professional PR flacks scientists would be better accepted." Scientific grifters need to be outed for the whores they are, and not lumped together with the real scientists who have created the knowledge base upon which our entire civilization is based.

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  7. what is the % of lies that makes a system based on common trusted knowledge("sitting on the shoulders of giants") come down crashing and become untrustworty, untrusted and needing to be verified again from ground up?

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  8. I don't understand how a single experiment that may or may not have created metallic hydrogen translates into a defeat of science. Science has proven itself time and again as the best means for unlocking the secrets of the natural world, from subatomic particles to the structure of the universe. The metallic hydrogen experiment will continue to be tested and be validated or not, but even a negative result is valuable information, and never a defeat.

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    1. Maybe you would understand if you took the time to read what the post says.

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  9. Ugo:

    Well, I would love to let you check out our results and reproduce them....but.....

    http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/worlds-only-sample-holy-grail-metallic-hydrogen-lost-laboratory-mishap-1608176

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)