LK-99: an unintentional social experiment

Whether they intended it or not, the South Korean team that published a preprint describing a room-temperature superconductor kicked off a social experiment that was fun to observe.

In hindsight, the claims surrounding LK-99 had all the hallmarks of pseudoscience. The mechanism for making the superconductor seemed too good to be true: combine a few seemingly boring compounds, heat them up in an oven, and presto – you’ve got a superconductor. The preprint that was published by the researchers had numerous red flags, including a plot of resistivity that was too coarse by many orders of magnitude for demonstrating superconductivity, among other amateurish blunders. When other labs around the world were trying and failing to replicate the superconductivity in LK-99, the reason given was that their process was not quite the same as the process used by the original South Korean team. In other words, only they have the true LK-99, but for some reason they’re not sharing their sample with any other lab. The red flags keep piling on from there.

But the social media storm was not abated. People were latching onto any scraps of validity about LK-99, including dubious replication attempts by anonymous Twitter trolls.

There were a number of videos that circulated, claiming evidence of superconductivity by demonstrating “levitation” properties of LK-99. However, all these videos used a generous definition of “levitation” that doesn’t really mean levitation, where the material is still standing on one corner and not quite fully levitating.

There were indeed videos that were claiming full levitation, but those turned out to be fake. I even contributed to the noise effort of dispelling the hype surrounding LK-99, by creating a fake video of my own, where a chunk of “LK-99” levitates over a neodymium hard drive magnet:

I originally posted the video on Twitter, with the intention of demonstrating how easy it is to fake such videos. The response to the video was very entertaining, and very telling. There were numerous people who immediately assumed the video was real (despite the text of my tweet that explicitly said it was fake). There were people who were genuinely mad at me for getting people’s hopes up, just by posting anything at all about LK-99. This speaks volumes about the average social media user’s attention span, and the user’s lack of willingness to seek out any context surrounding a random video that appears in their feed.

The most satisfying result of my fake video was Sabine Hossenfelder (one of my favorite physics/science YouTubers) using a clip of it in one of her own videos about LK-99, to echo the warning about the ease of producing such fakes.

In general, it seems that the social media fervor over LK-99 reveals that a lot of people are hungry for a scientific breakthrough, and I don’t blame them. There is a growing mood that progress in fundamental science, particularly in physics, has stagnated, and that the rapid-fire achievements in physics that happened in the first half of the 20th century was somehow a unique golden age that won’t be repeated. It is true that fundamental breakthroughs are much more difficult today than they were 100 years ago, simply because the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and the two theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity explain virtually everything in our world with staggering accuracy, despite being wholly incompatible with each other.

Nevertheless I believe there’s still plenty of space for a small team, or even a single person, to make a significant discovery. It’s just that we need to be extra careful about extraordinary claims made on the web, especially claims that play into our expectations of a breakthrough, and then manage our emotional response to those claims accordingly.