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Heavy Suspicion: Elemental discoveries trace to fake data

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9:57am, July 17, 2002
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A year ago, the team that reported the heaviest elements ever created in a laboratory admitted it had made a mistake. Now, it seems that the results were a fraud.

In 1999, Victor Ninov of Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) National Laboratory and his colleagues claimed to have made the first atoms of elements 118 and 116. They had fired krypton ions into a lead target in an accelerator. Their finding of the novel atoms with relatively long lifetimes, hundreds of microseconds, did more than add two new elements to the periodic table. The results lent support to a theory that some even heavier elements–if they, too, could be made–would remain stable for years (SN: 6/12/99, p. 372: http://www.sciencenews.org/sn_arc99/6_12_99/fob2.htm).

However, no one, not even the Berkeley team, could reproduce the findings. Worse, a reanalysis of the original data showed no evidence of either element 118 or its decay product, element 116. So, last August, Ninov's team retracted its claim, prompting heavy-element specialists to wonder openly about what sort of mix-up had led the team astray (SN: 8/4/01, p. 68: Researchers take an element off the table).

After a 5-month investigation, Berkeley lab examiners have concluded that the original finding was fraudulent. Lab spokesman Ronald R. Kolb confirms newspaper reports last week that Ninov, the leader of the 15 would-be codiscoverers, intentionally misled his colleagues–and everyone else–by fabricating data. Ninov was fired in May and is formally contesting his dismissal, Kolb adds.

This debacle harms the credibility of heavy-element studies, laments Ronald W. Lougheed of Lawrence Livermore (Calif.) National Laboratory. "It's one thing to be wrong if you were tricked by the data . . . but the standard of honesty in this field is supposed to be high," he says.

Nonetheless, the original data's implosion hasn't wiped out all signs of elements 116 and 118. Since the initial Berkeley results, Lougheed and his colleagues at Livermore and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, reported creating a different form of element 116. Just 2 weeks ago, adds Dubna's Yuri Ts. Oganessian, signs of a lone atom of element 118 turned up in the group's preliminary analysis of a new experiment.

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