IISc superconductivity saga: Impersonator almost succeeds in messing up

IISC-1

Even as many Indian scientists wish that the two-member IISc team proves the critics of superconductivity study wrong, a wily impersonator nearly succeeded in messing up. And as Skinner himself puts it, it’s “way more drama” than anyone can ever “encounter in physics”.

“I‘ve seen a lot of people making comments to the effect that this controversy [the nearly identical noise in IISc superconductivity study] will “make Indian science look bad”. Let me just say: only a very silly person would take a single two-person experiment to be a reflection of all of India,” says Dr. Brian Skinner. Skinner is a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, who raised a red flag on IISc superconductivity preprint posted on arXiv. He then added saying: “None of my colleagues have been discussing this paper that way, and I think the fear of “embarrassing India” is overblown.”

Prof. Anshu Pandey and Dev Kumar Thapa from the Solid State and Structural Chemistry Unit at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) posted a preprint wherein they claimed to to have achieved superconductivity at ambient temperature (below 236 K) and pressure. The IISc team observed superconductivity in nanosized films and pellets made of silver nanoparticles embedded in a gold matrix. Gold and silver do not exhibit a superconducting state independently. Manuscripts posted on arXiv have not undergone peer-reviewing.

Skinner had found nearly identical pattern of noise in two independent measurements of the magnetic susceptibility. Noise, by its very virtue, is random and finding nearly identical noise in measurements made under different conditions is therefore highly improbable. He posted his comments on arXiv and in a series of tweets.

A twist in the tale

As if the Skinner’s challenge and Prof. Pandey’s email response thanking him for his observation and a telling him that they are single-mindedly “focused on providing validation of their data, and will only post new data or a response to [Skinner] once they have done so” wasn’t riveting enough, an impersonator has emerged on the scene.

On June 26, Prof. Pratap Raychaudhuri from the Superconductivity Lab at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Mumbai had told me that the IISc superconductivity “results look robust and interesting”. He had even then expressed surprise that the mixture of gold and silver shows superconductivity when the two metals don’t exhibit a superconductivity state independently. And following Skinners challenge, Prof. Raychaudhuri had taken to Facebook to post a plausible explanation for finding nearly identical noise pattern.

On August 13, Prof. Raychaudhuri posted on Facebook a “strange” incident. He had apparently received an email from Prof. T. V. Ramakrishnan, a theoretical physicist who is now at Banaras Hindu University, to go soft on the IISc issue. “I receive a mail from my very respected senior colleague Prof. T. V. Ramakrishnan (TVR) asking me not to criticise Thapa and Pandey on social media and be patient,” he writes. The mail contained a trailing mail between Prof. Pandey and Prof. Ramakrishnan.

“I wrote a rather strong response to Prof. Ramakrishnan requesting him at the end not to form opinions based on second hand sources” and copied him on his personal email address. Finally, a phone call clears the air. “HE [Prof. Ramakrishnan] HAD NEVER WRITTEN ANY SUCH MAIL! He does not have any other e-mail address other than the one he normally uses,” Prof. Raychaudhuri writes.

The mail to Prof. Raychaudhuri that was supposedly sent by Prof. Ramakrishnan and the mail exchange between Prof. Ramakrishnan and Prof. Pandey have been “fabricated”.

“TVR’s impersonated mail was sent from protonmail server. A check on Wikipedia tells me that this is a end-to-end encrypted mail-server (unlike Gmail and Yahoo) based in Switzerland. What baffles me who would have an interest in crafting a careful and highly credible mail thread, send it through an encrypted e-mail server only to dissuade me from writing on Facebook?,” Prof. Raychaudhuri says in his Facebook post. ”

“Guys, it’s hard to properly convey how surreal this all feels. It’s way more drama than I ever thought I would encounter in physics,” says Skinner.

And the next thing that happens is even more weird. Skinner gets a Facebook friend request from a person (Wiles Licher) he has never heard of. And that person’s name matches with the one found on the email address (wileslicher@protonmail.com) that Prof. Raychaudhuri received. And today (August 14) Prof. Raychaudhuri too received a similar Facebook friend request from Wiles Licher.

Wiles Licher’s Facebook account and the protonmail email account have since been deleted.

In a Facebook update, Prof. Raychaudhuri says wryly: “Whoever this impostor is, he has displayed a huge degree of maturity and cunning[ness]. He has managed to convey the message, with a touch of class and without getting abusive or aggressive. He has been following the conversations intently on Facebook, strategically chosen his timings, knows how to credibly impersonate TVR [Prof. Ramakrishnan]. This guy is intelligent, cultured and has a personal interest in doing what he is doing here. He could become Prof. Moryarti if he hones up his skills.

“Is this a disgruntled student as … suspect? I doubt that very much. Most disgruntled students are actually not that bright and not this subtle. If they are bright they have better things to do that to risk their career doing this. After all, how much difference there is between solving a crime (even committing one) and solving a mystery of nature.”

Skinner sums it up

In a few tweets Skinner puts the whole episode in a proper perspective. “So let me say something that probably needs saying: the mysterious “Wiles Licher” is very likely some third-party troll using this controversy as a chance to mess with people,” he says. “The reality of the claims in the paper will be decided (by people closer to the situation and more expert in the field than I am) on the basis of data and reproducibility. Weird shenanigans are a distraction to the important question…. So please don’t think I’m weaving a conspiracy theory against the authors or anyone else.”

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