Super Battery!!!

by Eric Drexler on 2010/07/14

A benchmark for judging hype:

WSU Researchers Use Super-high Pressures
to Create Super Battery

The researchers created the material on the Pullman campus…The cell contained xenon difluoride (XeF2), a white crystal used to etch silicon conductors, squeezed between two small diamond anvils….The researchers eventually increased the pressure to more than a million atmospheres, comparable to what would be found halfway to the center of the earth….

That’s it: a super-compressed material, not a battery, much less a “Super Battery”. If the material is stable at atmospheric pressure (or anything close), I’ll eat it or breathe the fluorine. This stuff couldn’t even be used in a battery.

As I’ve said, hype like this erodes trust in science and impedes rational choices in research. One way or another, it richly deserves to be stigmatized — how about calling it “deceptive advertising”?

An addendum: By the way, I regard problems like this as primarily institutional and cultural, and I think that placing much blame on any individual would be both unfair and counterproductive.

Why “unfair” to focus blame on individuals?
First, the fundamental problem is with permissive norms and expectations — the actions of people who live down to current standards are more a consequence than a cause. Second, I’m sure that the worst examples of hype emerge thorough multiple stages of exaggeration and confusion, with no standard fact-checking procedure and abysmal standards for what passes for a fact. It’s best to regard responsibility as diffuse, and to not look too closely.

Why “counterproductive” to blame individuals?
I think we’d all benefit from a shift in attitudes that leads decent people to stop doing this, but starting by blaming people for routine behavior would cause needless pain on all sides, making it far more comfortable to instead do nothing. All that’s needed — or appropriate — today is turning up the general level of criticism to make hype less fun, profitable, and acceptable.

For example, people who join in grumbling about deceptive hype at lunch are less likely to produce it when they get back to the office. Progress through griping — what could be more fun?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Nielsen July 15, 2010 at 2:34 am UTC

I agree with you, but wanted to note some systemic problems around the question: who will stigmatize it? Peer review of grants and papers and the anonymous letter system really discourage people from stigmatizing bad work, at least publicly. Why do so when the people you criticize may be in a position to review your work later, anonymously? A colleague of mine was once asked to review a (bad) book in a leading journal. I asked him if he would do it, and he replied, witheringly: “I want a career” [No].

This seems to me like a tough problem to solve, without considerable change in science.

Eric Drexler July 15, 2010 at 3:57 am UTC

Hi Mike, I wrote an addendum to my post while you were writing your comment. What I suggest there is a soft path, encouraging a shift in attitudes by encouraging more informal, behind-the-back criticism of offenders, and more complaining about the sorry state of affairs, how the hypesters are exploiting the system, etc. This sort of thing is part of how norms shift, and for starters, I suggest informal griping about the need for more informal griping —

…I mean, can you believe that people put up with this BS? These [fill in the jerks du jour] are turning science into a hype competition, and hardly anyone even complains about it! And it just gets worse! [speaker bites into sandwich]

Your note, though, raises the more difficult question of how to improve the quantity and quality of criticism in science at an institutional level. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and I’d like to outline this in greater length in a post, and I hope we can take the discussion further.

Michael Nielsen July 15, 2010 at 8:05 pm UTC

In my original comment I drew attention to anonymity, but on further reflection this kind of problem really seems to be a consequence of a broader phenomenon, which is the relative tightness of ties in the scientific community. No-one in field X wants to publicly criticise others in field X because of those ties. There are, of course, exceptions, but they’re rare. As I believe you suggested to me in email, a more promising place to look for critics is perhaps in neighbouring fields. That has problems, too, of course (imagine the chemists going to war against the physicists…), but it seems worth exploring.

I’ll look forward to the future post.

Steffen Christensen July 17, 2010 at 12:34 am UTC

Hey, Eric! Long time, no talk!

Funny, I read this headline as well, downloaded the article brief on Nature, read the supplemental information off their site, and said to myself… “Hmmm. It doesn’t sound like these new phases of XeF2 are stable at STP. Why would anyone think that this would make a good battery? Even if you stuffed it in a nanoanvil cell and reversibly depressurized it, you’d still have a lousy battery, because the volume of your diamond would be orders of magnitude larger than the xenon difluoride sample. Who writes this garbage?”

Funny, then, that I thought to google your work on an unrelated subject, and noted that you were on much the same page as myself, only you had elaborated! :) Well done, sir!

Write me: we should talk sometime. I’m doing very interesting things for the Canadian government now, for whom I work. :)


Eric Drexler July 18, 2010 at 8:39 pm UTC

Hi, Steffen – Good to hear from you, and I’d like to hear more. Please send me an update on what you’re up to!

Samantha Atkins July 19, 2010 at 8:54 pm UTC

What is wrong with criticizing roundly the reporters and their companies for this sort of thing? If there is no negative feedback then their is only upside in the creation and spread of exciting but erroneous headlines. How do we get to a bit more due diligence if there is no reward for diligence or at least a penalty for its lack? I don’t think just generally decrying the dismal state of science reporting will do much.

Eniac July 21, 2010 at 11:41 am UTC

Perhaps the thumbs-up/thumbs-down buttons that are increasingly showing up on the web will one day evolve into an effective review system for keeping such nonsense in check.

One can hope….

HP LaLancette August 3, 2010 at 4:47 am UTC

“hype like this erodes trust in science and impedes rational choices in research”

That’s ironic coming from you.

Eric Drexler August 5, 2010 at 8:13 pm UTC

@ HP LaLancette — Superficially, yes, but in reality, no. If there were less hype, there would be more attention to what sounds like hype, but has been vetted by the US National Academy of Sciences (see “Technical Feasibility of Site-Specific Chemistry for Large-Scale Manufacturing”, aka molecular manufacturing) and explored by Battelle and the US National Labs (see “Productive Nanosystems: A Technology Roadmap”).

In the present noisy environment, your reaction reflects a rational heuristic for judging claims, but it gives the wrong result this time. I wish that this topic weren’t inherently outrageous-sounding, and that it hadn’t accreted layers of thick layers of genuine hype and rubbish. What sounds like hype, but isn’t, tends to be unusually important. Ambient hype leads therefore leads rational people to discount the upper end of the spectrum of important research directions — a perverse result with high opportunity costs.

(You also might want to take a look at “Productive nanosystems: the physics of molecular fabrication”, in the journal Physics Education.)

Eric Drexler August 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm UTC

@ Samantha — I agree: Criticizing the reporters and their companies for spreading rubbish is an excellent idea, and if it were done more often, we’d see a change for the better. I’m tempted to do it more often myself, but you can probably see why, for me, it might be costly downstream.

tarik August 13, 2010 at 9:53 pm UTC

hello Mr Erik.
i’m tarik from Algeria….i was just wondering about the shrinking people project..does’t exist really?..and is it theoricly possible…i mean to reduce someone size?….i’m interested in all that…

tarik August 13, 2010 at 9:56 pm UTC….my email.

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