More Elemental Fraud?

The tangled tale of element 118 is getting even more convoluted. Last week, officials at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California concluded that the 1999 "discovery" of elements 118 and 116 was due to scientific misconduct. Now, ScienceNOW has learned that scientists in Germany have found falsified data in two other experiments that one of the LBNL team members participated in: the 1994 and 1996 discoveries of elements 110 and 112.

The LBNL discovery began to fall apart last year. After LBNL, the Institute for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Darmstadt, Germany, and other laboratories failed to replicate the experiment, an LBNL team reanalyzed the original data. "They looked again at the old data, the magnetic tape, and they couldn't find the decay chain among the data," says Sigurd Hofmann of GSI. The decay chain--a cascade of alpha particles that accompanies the deterioration of a superheavy element--is a key piece of evidence in the discovery of a new heavy element. "The conclusion was that it was produced artificially," Hofmann says. After an investigation, LBNL dismissed the individual thought to be responsible. Ron Kolb, a spokesperson at LBNL, declined to describe the misconduct or to mention names, but he confirmed that Victor Ninov, who was in charge of the data analysis of the experiment, was fired from the laboratory in May.

According to Hofmann, two experiments performed at GSI--for which Ninov was in charge of data analysis--also showed signs of scientific fraud. "When we reanalyzed our decay chain for element 112, we saw that the first decay chain was produced artificially," he says. "In the original data, only one alpha particle was measured. Four additional alphas were artificially added to this one." In the GSI experiment for element 110, the second of four decay chains also seems to be a fabrication.

"I couldn't understand it; I still cannot understand it," says Hofmann. "We had good data. There was no reason to produce artificial ones--and [the culprit] would be sooner or later discovered." Luckily for the GSI team, the good data were enough to prove the existence of elements 110 and 112. But elements 116 and 118 vanished along with the spurious data, leaving the scientists at LBNL stunned and embarrassed. "It is a shock," says Pier Oddone, deputy director for research at LBNL. "The reaction is astonishment and anger.

Related sites
ScienceNOW story on fraud related to elements 116 and 118
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Posted in Physics