A scandal that has been festering in the nuclear science community recently became public with the discovery that Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has fired one of the scientists who reported the creation of superheavy elements 116 and 118. LBNL has accused nuclear physicist Victor Ninov of faking key data, thereby forcing the team to retract its original findings of 1999.
Suspicions originally formed in the wake of the sensational announcement of the discovery of elements 116 and 118 when other labs couldn't replicate the Berkeley team's findings. Two years later, after a rigorous analysis of their data, the LBNL group members retracted their report (C&EN, Aug. 6, 2001, page 10).
Scientists typically create superheavy elements by smashing two smaller elements together. Evidence of the often short-lived superheavies can be inferred by tracing backward from their decay chains. In the case of 116 and 118, some of the decay chains reported were not in the original data set.
The laboratory suspended Ninov in November 2001 pending the results of a formal investigation. That investigation concluded that Ninov had faked data, and he was fired in May.
LBNL Director Charles V. Shank told employees at a meeting last month that the retraction was "a result of fabricated research data and scientific misconduct by one individual."
The official retraction was finally published this month in Physical Review Letters [89, 039901 (2002)], the same journal that printed the original results, with "all but one of the authors" requesting its publication, the article said.
"It's been devastating for the whole group's morale," says Darleane C. Hoffman, coleader of LBNL's heavy-element nuclear and radiochemistry laboratory and recipient of the 2000 Priestley Medal. "In my 50 years of research, I've never been associated personally with such a thing."
Walter D. Loveland, chemistry professor at Oregon State University, Corvallis, and a member of the LBNL team, adds, "While I understand intellectually what has been said--as a person, I find it very difficult to understand why any of this happened."
Ninov, whom colleagues have described as a respected and talented scientist, tells C&EN he stands by his original research. He has filed a formal grievance with the lab and insists, "I did not fabricate any kind of data." Rather, he says, lab politics has made him a scapegoat. "This is quite a dramatic criticism of my reputation," he says.
But another problem has come to light, according to Sigurd Hofmann, a leader of the team that discovered elements 110 in 1994, and 111 and 112 in 1996, at the Institute for Heavy Ion Research (GSI), Darmstadt, Germany.
Hofmann's group reanalyzed its data for the three superheavy elements after LBNL's retraction. While the researchers ultimately validated evidence for all of the elements, some of the data, which Ninov analyzed, were "spuriously created," possibly because of "human failure" [Eur. Phys. J. A, 14, 147 (2002)].
But Hofmann himself is more direct: "We found clear evidence that the first decay chain [for element 112] published in 1996 was faked and did not exist in the original data files," he tells C&EN.
Ninov says he has been corresponding with the GSI team and that the inconsistencies could be due to computer errors.
Little noticed in the turmoil is that another group discovered an isotope of element 116 about a year after the original LBNL report. With the original results for 116 and 118 retracted, that group--a collaboration between the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions in Dubna, Russia, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory--may now receive credit for 116. Its report [Phys. Rev. C, 63, 011301 (2001)] still needs to be confirmed by another lab, LLNL team member Kenton J. Moody says.
In the meantime, he says, he and his colleagues are now taking pains to keep rigorous track of their data.
"It's a mess," Moody says. "I fear at some level it puts all of us under suspicion."
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