Despite Superconductor Breakthrough, Some Scientists Remain Skeptical
This week, researchers unveiled a new superconductor which they say works at room temperature.
Scientists have been working on identifying new superconductors for decades—materials that can transmit electricity without friction-like resistance. However, previously discovered superconductors only work at super cold temperatures, and under incredibly high pressures.
The newly discovered superconductor, lutetium, could be much more useful in applications, like strong magnets used in MRIs, magnetically floating trains, and even nuclear fusion, than those which must be kept super-cold.
But there’s a bit of a wrinkle. The research team which published their results in the journal Nature this week, had their previous study on another superconductor retracted in 2020. As a result, many scientists in the field have concerns about the quality of this new research.
Ira talks with Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, to make sense of this superconductor saga and other big science news of the week including bumblebee culture, extreme ways to save mountain glaciers, and identifying the worms in Mezcal.
Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science.
IRA FLATOW: This week’s researchers have unveiled a new superconductor. A superconductor which they say works at room temperature. Scientists have been working on identifying new superconductors for decades. Materials which can transmit electricity without pesky friction-like resistance, and the ones discovered in the past only work at super-cold temperatures, so this would make this material much more useful in applications like strong magnets, used in MRIs, magnetically floating trains, even nuclear fusion.
But there is a bit of a wrinkle. And Sophie Bushwick is here to iron it all out. See what I did there, Sophie? Sophie Bushwick is the Technology Editor at Scientific American. She’s here with me in our studios in New York. Welcome back, Sophie.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks. It’s great to be here. And I’m really excited to be talking about this topic, I think it’s very interesting.
IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s get right into it. First, tell us what superconductivity is.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So superconductivity is when electricity can travel through material without losing any of its energy in the form of heat. So it’s– imagine if you had a wire carrying electricity, say, in a power grid across the country. As it moves, the wire is going to heat up a little bit, it’s going to shed some of this energy in the form of heat.
And if you had that wire made out of a superconducting material, it would have zero energy loss. And so you can imagine more efficient energy transmission, but also a computer that never overheats. And because of superconductors are– they exhibit some weird behavior, including pushing out magnetic fields.
IRA FLATOW: Ooh.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So if you’ve ever seen an experiment or performed an experiment where you have a magnet levitating above a superconductor, that’s a result of that phenomenon.
IRA FLATOW: Cool. Yes, I have done that.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: A couple of times. All right, so what’s exciting about this news, then?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this news is exciting because to get a superconductor to work, you’ve got to have it in extremely controlled conditions. It’s either– so there’s some materials that can be superconducting when they’re chilled to very low temperatures, and there’s others that can be superconducting at room temperature, but you have to squeeze them in this vice-like device called a diamond anvil that raises the pressure around them to you know roughly a quarter or half of the pressure found at the center of the earth.
IRA FLATOW: Oh!
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So it’s not super practical for building train tracks for a maglev train out of this stuff. So this new material is interesting because not only is it working at room temperature, but it’s supposed to be working at a pressure that’s not quite room pressure, but it’s like 100 times less pressure than is required for other materials like this.
IRA FLATOW: And it’s at room temperature, right?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right.
IRA FLATOW: That’s an important thing.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, that’s definitely an important thing as well.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But I said there’s a wrinkle here. There’s some controversy about the researchers who did this.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So the research team that did– that put this out had previously published a study about a different superconducting material that worked at room temperature, and that was published in 2020 in Nature.
But other researchers in the superconductivity community started pointing out problems with the data that had to do with– for a lot of these measurements, when you take the measurement, you can’t just use the raw data because there’s all this background noise. So you have to measure the background noise, measure the signal from this superconducting sample, and then subtract out the background.
And they said that there’s some discrepancies here in this process that don’t make sense. And as a result of a lot of back and forth between these researchers, Nature retracted that paper. And that’s not the only paper to have weird issues with the data from the same– these same researchers.
So for that reason, there are people in the superconductivity community who are saying, we’re not necessarily going to trust these results on face value.
IRA FLATOW: And you talked to them. What did they say it would take to trust these results?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So they think it would take replication, which is something that the authors also say they want, the idea that another lab not affiliated with this one could try to make the same material, test it for superconductivity, and find the same results. So replication is what would it would take to make them as excited as the authors are.
IRA FLATOW: Ah, you know it reminds me a little bit? Just a little bit of cold fusion back in the day where you could not replicate the results. People couldn’t do it, but–
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right.
IRA FLATOW: –they might they might be able to, right?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They might. And also, this isn’t– this isn’t unique to this particular study. So back in the ’80s, there was the discovery of superconductors that still had to be chilled, but not to quite as low temperatures.
And the researchers who published a paper on it, for about the first six months after they published the paper, there wasn’t a ton of excitement. It was only when those results were replicated that people were like, wow, I think you’re really on to something here, and the original researchers eventually won a Nobel Prize for it.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. I’m tempted to say, that’s really cool, but I’ll try– I’ll try to stay–
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It is literally and metaphorically cool.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you for bailing me out. There’s another story getting a lot of buzz this week. Speaking of dad jokes, bumblebees. Bumblebees are capable of creating and transmitting culture. Tell us about that.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So we think of culture as something humans have, but if you define culture the way scientists do, which is socially learning a behavior within a population, then they’ve actually demonstrated this in a bunch of different species, and now they’ve demonstrated it in bumblebees. So the way– the thing that they wanted to transmit was the ability to solve this puzzle box.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s this cool apparatus where there’s this sugar solution under a lid, and in order to access it, you can push either a red tab in one direction or a blue tab in another. And then they took some bees from different colonies and taught them how to solve it in a specific way, either the red tab method or the blue tab method. And then they put them back in their hives.
And sure enough, the bees that knew how to do it taught the other bees in their colony, but they taught them the specific method they learned. So even though either method would work, the bees in a colony that had learned to do the blue tab method would do the blue tab method. And if they accidentally did the red tab method and it worked–
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: –they wouldn’t necessarily pick that up. They might do it and solve it, but then they would go back to the blue tab way that they knew, their culturally chosen way.
IRA FLATOW: Why– yeah, let’s talk about the definition of culture. Why do we call this culture, that the bees have culture?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, we have to talk about– if you’re trying to defnie something like culture, which is such a broad category, and you’re a scientist, you’re like, well, let’s give this a good definition. So it’s a socially learned behavior. They learned it from the demonstrator bees that had been trained.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And it was used within this set population. So it was used within the population of the specific colony. If you went to another colony that had learned from a different demonstrator bee, they would do that method instead. So that you can see– think of these colonies as having different cultures when it comes to solving this puzzle box.
IRA FLATOW: And that doesn’t sound so weird because bees live in big colonies. Like the ants live in colonies and you’d think there is a culture–
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: –developing, right?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. And there’s also more complex communication than we would have expected. So not bumblebees, but honey bees do a dance called the waggle dance where they can teach other members of the colony where to find a source of nectar.
So it’s clear that what’s going on among animals is communication and learning that’s more complex than we used to think they were capable of, which makes you think that all the things we think of, oh, well only humans can do this it turns out, in a lot of ways, we’re not so special.
IRA FLATOW: They have some culture, yes they do. This next story raises more questions than it answers, and I’m talking about a new analysis into tree rings shows that what scientists once thought were solar flares might actually be– they’re caused by something else. Tell us about– what do we know about what’s going on here?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is super cool. So trees absorb carbon dioxide, as we know, but sometimes a teeny, teeny tiny fraction of the carbon that they take in is a radioactive isotope of carbon. And those radioactive molecules are formed from sometimes– from humans doing our human thing, testing nuclear power or weapons, but sometimes it comes from cosmic radiation, which we think of as coming from like big solar flares from the sun.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And if you look at the historical record preserved in tree rings, you can see where historically there were big solar flares. But when researchers started studying these events called Miyake events, they think that they could also be caused by things like maybe a comet passing by, maybe a far-off neutron star, or even a supernova.
IRA FLATOW: So so I guess to sum it up, then, they’re not quite sure.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They’re not quite sure. The mystery continues. But it’s a fascinating topic of study.
IRA FLATOW: –just love that, yeah. And your next story you’ve brought us is about some unexpected solutions to a problem we’ve talked about quite a bit on this show, and that’s melting mountain glaciers. Your colleagues at Scientific American, Amanda Ruggeri, she wrote about some extreme measures to save glaciers. Tell us about some of these measures. They sound very– well, go ahead.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Some of this is a little– it’s a little out there. So one idea is just making extra snow. Cover those glaciers with a little extra snow, help replenish them. The problem is, of course, it takes energy to make snow and it takes water. So researchers are developing snow-making methods that rely more on things like gravity to help the process along and make them less energy-intensive. But another option is just take some white paint, paint some rocks. Have those rocks reflect the sunlight back into the sky.
IRA FLATOW: Cheap, if you got enough paint, right?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. But not as effective as, say, what if you could cover the whole glacier in a big white blanket that would insulate it from the sun and reflect those rays away?
IRA FLATOW: There was a team of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, there were artists back in the day. They covered buildings and work of art with big sheets and stuff. They’re not among us now, but they that would fit right in for what they were doing.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. But of course, there, the problem is that glaciers are big. Even shrinking these glaciers are still very very large, it would take more than a billion dollars to cover just the 1,000 largest glaciers in Switzerland with blankets like these. So again, that’s more appropriate for small areas as opposed to big ones.
IRA FLATOW: Finally, let’s end with some fun fact you’ll be sure you want to share over the weekend with friends. Scientists identified the worms you sometimes find in a bottle of mescal.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s. Right they did a genetic analysis of the, quote-unquote, “worms” found in 21 different bottles, and I say “quote-unquote” because they’re not actually–
IRA FLATOW: They’re not worms!
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They’re not.
IRA FLATOW: What are they?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They are the larva of a moth, and these are– they’re called– unfortunately, I’m going to contradict myself here. The name of the larva colloquially is the red agave worm, so people call them that, but they are not worms, they are moth larva. And in fact, they turn into cream-colored moths once they reach adulthood. So the red color is only in their larval stage.
IRA FLATOW: How did they discover this?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, they were sitting around a bar and they said, I wonder. And then they grabbed– they grabbed some bottles of mescal and they decided to do genetic testing on the larva inside. And some of them they couldn’t genetic test. They had actually been baked before they were put into the bottle.
IRA FLATOW: Ooh.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So those they just had to look at and say, well, can we identify the characteristics and the physical traits of this insect that could help us tell us what it is?
IRA FLATOW: I wonder if this idea came before or after drinking a couple of margaritas on the weekends.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I think we’ll never know. It’s another mystery of science.
IRA FLATOW: Something we have to perform on our own.
Thank you, Sophie.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick, Technology Editor at Scientific American based in New York.
Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.