+- Lessons from Superconductivity

An article in Nature’s latest Materials Update entitled “Superconductivity fights back” [Sanderson, 2006] may have some wider lessons for science, including thermoelectrics. It seems Marx and Barth studied trends in recent paper and patent publications on superconductivity [Barth, 2006v1], concluding in part that: “As a result the decrease of research activity can be extrapolated to reach zero between 2010 and 2015 provided that spectacular discoveries fail to appear.” Researchers in superconductivity have taken umbrage. Conceding the authors are technically correct, critics don’t think their field will “reach zero” and complained. Apparently as a result of the criticisms the authors have revised their conclusions [Barth, 2006v2], dropping the “extraploated to reach zero” part in favor of An article in Nature’s latest Materials Update entitled “Superconductivity fights back” [Sanderson, 2006] may have some wider lessons for science, including thermoelectrics. It seems Marx and Barth studied trends in recent paper and patent publications on superconductivity [Barth, 2006v1], concluding in part that: “As a result the decrease of research activity can be extrapolated to reach zero between 2010 and 2015 provided that spectacular discoveries fail to appear.” Researchers in superconductivity have taken umbrage. Conceding the authors are technically correct, critics don’t think their field will “reach zero” and complained. Apparently as a result of the criticisms the authors have revised their conclusions [Barth, 2006v2], dropping the “extraploated to reach zero” part in favor of “The data reveal a significant decrease of basic research activity in this research field.” Research goes through these sorts of ups and downs all the time. Superconductivity languished for years between punctuating events like Onnes’s discovery, BCS theory, discovery of Type I vs. Type II superconductors and magnetic superconductors. The cuprates is just the latest cycle. It seems perfectly fair to say the field is unlikely to actually go to zero. And something new may well come along and kick-start a whole new cycle. But it is also fair to say that the trends TODAY do in fact extrapolate to zero. As it happens I have published [Vining, 2005] a similar, albeit less ambitious, figure for publications on thermoelectrics: http://www.its.org/node/4746 TE Publications 1955-2003: Open literature publications in the Web of Science database with the keyword 'thermoelectric' as a percentage of all publications in the database for each year from 1955-2003.  From [C. B. Vining, "History of the International Thermoelectric Society," in TE Publications 1955-2003: Open literature publications in the Web of Science database with the keyword ‘thermoelectric’ as a percentage of all publications in the database for each year from 1955-2003. From [C. B. Vining, “History of the International Thermoelectric Society,” in As in superconductivity, thermoelectrics have had periods of steep increases and periods of steep declines. What comes next? Who can say? Predicting what comes next is as difficult as predicting when your watch will stop working. (Bad example. Your watch stops working just before the most important meeting of your life. But you take my meaning.] I can extrapolate from my figure that by about 2094 ALL scientific publications will have the word “thermoelectric” in them. There are several lessons here: 1) Extrapolations are notoriously unreliable. 2) Stuff happens. 3) Scientists are no more objective about their own work than anyone else. [Barth, 2006v1], http://arxiv.org/abs/cond-mat/0609114v1 [Barth, 2006v2], http://arxiv.org/abs/cond-mat/0609114v2 [Sanderson, 2006], http://www.nature.com/materials/news/news/061012/journal/061009-5.html [Vining, 2005] C. B. Vining, “History of the International Thermoelectric Society,” in Thermoelectrics Handbook: Macro to Nano, D. M. Rowe, Ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2005, pp. A1-1 — A1-8.]

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