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List of experimental errors and frauds in physics

Experimental science demands repeatability of results but many experiments are not due to fraud or error[1][2] The list of papers whose results were later retracted or discredited, thus leading to invalid science is growing[3] Some errors are introduced when the experimenter's desire for a certain result unconsciously influences selection of data a problem which is possible to avoid in some cases withdouble-blind protocols[4] There have also been cases of deliberate scientific misconduct[5]


  • 1 Famous experimental errors
  • 2 Alleged scientific misconduct cases
  • 3 See also
  • 4 References

Famous experimental errors

  • N-rays 1903
A reported faint visual effect that experimenters could still "see" even when the supposed causative element in their apparatus had been secretly disconnected[6]
  • Walter Kaufmann 1906 – claimed experimental disproof of special relativity
Published in Annalen der Physik and said to be the first journal paper to cite Einstein's 1905 electrodynamics paper Kaufmann's paper stated that his results were not compatible with special relativity According to Gerald Holton, it took a decade for the shortcomings of Kaufmann's test to be realised: during this time, critics of special relativity were able to claim that the theory was invalidated by the available experimental evidence[7]
  • Walter Sydney Adams 1924 – premature verification of the gravitational redshift effect
A number of earlier experimenters claimed to have found the presence or lack of gravitational redshift, but Adams' result was supposed to have settled the issue Unfortunately the measurement and the prediction were both in error such that it initially appeared to be valid[8] It is no longer considered credible and there has been much debate about whether the results were fraud or that his data may have been contaminated by stray light from Sirius A[9] The first "reliable" confirmations of the effect appeared in the 1960s
  • First reproducible synthetic diamond 1955
Originally reported in Nature in 1955[10] and later Diamond synthesis was later determined to be impossible with the apparatus Subsequent analysis indicated that the first gemstone used to secure further funding was natural rather than synthetic Artificial diamonds have since been produced[11]
  • Claimed Detection of Gravitational Waves 1970
In 1970 Joseph Weber, an electrical engineer turned physicist, and working with the University of Maryland, reported the detection of 311 excitations on his test equipment designed to measure gravitational waves[12] He utilized an apparatus consisting of two one ton aluminum bars, each a separate detector, in some configurations being hung within a vacuum chamber, or having one bar displaced to Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago, about 1,000 kilometers away, all for further isolation[13] He took extreme measures to isolate the equipment from seismic and other interferences But Weber’s criteria for data analysis turned out to be ill-defined and partly subjective By the end of the 1970s Weber's work was considered spurious as it could not be replicated by others Still Weber is considered one of the fathers of gravitational wave detection and inspiration for other projects such as LIGO
  • Oops-Leon Particle 1976
Data from Fermilab in 1976 appeared to indicate a new particle at about 6 GeV which decayed into electron-positron pairs Subsequent data and analysis indicated that the apparent peak resulted from random noise The name is a pun on upsilon, the proposed name for the new particle and Leon M Lederman, the principal investigator The illusory particle is unrelated to the Upsilon meson, discovered in 1977 by the same group[14]
  • Cold fusion 1989
Main article: Cold fusion Since the announcement of Pons and Fleischmann in 1989, cold fusion has been considered to be an example of a pathological science[15] Two panels convened by the US Department of Energy, one in 1989 and a second in 2004, did not recommend a dedicated federal program for cold fusion research[16] In 2007 Nature reported that the American Chemical Society would host an invited symposium on cold fusion and low energy nuclear reactions at their national meeting for the first time in many years[17][18]

Alleged scientific misconduct cases

  • Rupp 1926 – dubious canal-ray experiments
Rupp had been considered one of the best experimenters of his time, until he was forced to admit that his notable track record was at least partly due to the fabrication of results[19]
  • Materials physics ~1999
Main article: Schön scandal A succession of high-profile peer-reviewed papers previously published by Jan Hendrik Schön were subsequently found to have used obviously fabricated data[5]
  • Production of element 118 1999
Element 118 oganesson was announced, and then the announcement withdrawn by Berkeley after claims of irreproducibility The researcher involved, Victor Ninov, denies doing anything wrong[20]

See also

  • Academic dishonesty
  • List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
  • Bogdanov affair


  1. ^ Norton, John D 20 June 2015 "Replicability of Experiment" THEORIA An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science UPV/EHU Press 30 2: 229 doi:101387/theoria12691 ISSN 2171-679X 
  2. ^ "Problems with scientific research: How science goes wrong" economistcom Retrieved 20 July 2018 
  3. ^ Rosten, Micheal "Retracted Scientific Studies: A Growing List" nytimescom Retrieved 20 July 2018 
  4. ^ Chapman, Kit; Lalloo, Manisha "Science's problem with unconscious bias" chemistryworldcom Retrieved 20 July 2018 
  5. ^ a b Sarachik, Miriam "Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World" physicstodaycom Retrieved 20 July 2018 
  6. ^ Wood, RW 29 September 1904 "The N-Rays" Nature 70 1822: 530–531 Bibcode:1904Natur70530W doi:101038/070530a0 After spending three hours or more in witnessing various experiments, I am not only unable to report a single observation which appeared to indicate the existence of the rays, but left with a very firm conviction that the few experimenters who have obtained positive results, have been in some way deluded A somewhat detailed report of the experiments which were shown to me, together with my own observations, may be of interest to the many physicists who have spent days and weeks in fruitless efforts to repeat the remarkable experiments which have been described in the scientific journals of the past year 
  7. ^ Jeremy Bernstein, "Einstein" 1973 pp81–85 — Kaufmann experiment
  8. ^ Holberg, J B 2010 "Sirius B and the Measurement of the Gravitational Redshift" Journal for the History of Astronomy SAGE Publications 41 1: 41–64 doi:101177/002182861004100102 ISSN 0021-8286 
  9. ^ F Wesemael, "A comment on Adams' measurement of the gravitational redshift of Sirius B", Royal Astronomical Society, Quarterly Journal ISSN 0035-8738, 26, Sept 1985, 273–278
  10. ^ F P Bundy; H T Hall; H M Strong; R H Wentorf 1955 "Man-Made Diamonds" Nature 176 4471: 51–55 Bibcode:1955Natur17651B doi:101038/176051a0 
  11. ^ Bovenkerk et al, "Errors in diamond synthesis", Nature 365 19 1993 "Scientific Correspondence"
  12. ^ Lindley, D Dec 22, 2005 "Focus: A Fleeting Detection of Gravitational Waves" Phy Rev Focus 16 19 
  13. ^ Weber, J May 1972 "How I Discovered Gravitational Waves" Popular Science 100th Anniversary issue: 106 
  14. ^ "!! EXTRA!! FERMILAB EXPERIMENT DISCOVERS NEW PARTICLE "UPSILON"" historyfnalgov Retrieved 20 July 2018 
  15. ^ Labinger JA, Weininger SJ 2005 "Controversy in chemistry: how do you prove a negative—the cases of phlogiston and cold fusion" Angew Chem Int Ed Engl 44 13: 1916–22 doi:101002/anie200462084 PMID 15770617 So there matters stand: no cold fusion researcher has been able to dispel the stigma of 'pathological science' by rigorously and reproducibly demonstrating effects sufficiently large to exclude the possibility of error for example, by constructing a working power generator, nor does it seem possible to conclude unequivocally that all the apparently anomalous behavior can be attributed to error 
  16. ^ US Department of Energy 2004 "Report of the Review of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions" PDF Washington, DC: doegov Archived from the original PDF on 2007-01-14 Retrieved 2008-07-19 
  17. ^ "Cold fusion is back at the American Chemical Society" Nature News, 29 March 2007, doi:101038/news070326-12
  18. ^ Van Noorden, R 2007 "Cold fusion back on the menu" Chemistry World April 2007 Retrieved 2008-05-25 
  19. ^ Michael Brooks, on Emil Rupp, "Convenient untruths", New Scientist, No2630 17 Nov 2007 pp 58–59 See also Jeroen van Dongen, "Emil Rupp, Albert Einstein and the Canal Ray Experiments on Wave-Particle Duality: Scientific Fraud and Theoretical Bias" https://arxivorg/abs/07093099
  20. ^ George Johnson October 15, 2002 "At Lawrence Berkeley, Physicists Say a Colleague Took Them for a Ride" reprint The New York Times 

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