It was said to have been the only piece on Earth of a metal that could have revolutionised life as we know it.
But a tiny sample of metallic hydrogen – purportedly created by scientists at Harvard University – has disappeared, The Independent can reveal.
According to one theory, the metal would be a superconductor capable of dramatically improving anything to do with electricity, creating faster computers, saving vast amounts of power currently lost in transmission and ushering in a new generation of super-efficient electric vehicles.
It could also be used to make a much more powerful type of rocket fuel, enabling humans to explore the solar system as never before.
The minuscule sample was being kept between two tiny diamonds at a pressure greater than found at the centre of the planet and a temperature close to absolute zero, while its properties were studied.
But an attempt to measure the pressure using a low-power laser went disastrously wrong with a small “click” indicating that one of the diamonds had shattered into a fine dust.
Discoveries that change the way you see the world
Discoveries that change the way you see the world
1/30 Million-year-old human footprints discovered
Million-year-old human footprints have been discovered on the beach as Happisburgh, Norfolk
2/30 The world's oldest face
Scientists discovered the world’s oldest face, which belongs to this 419 million-year-old fish - an ancient sea predator that might also re-write the history of our evolution from the seas
3/30 Discovery of the ancient forest
Ancient forest revealed by storms. The recent huge storms and gale force winds that have battered the coast of West Wales have stripped away much of the sand from stretches of the beach between Borth and Ynyslas. The disappearing sands have revealed ancients forests, with the remains of oak trees dating back to the Bronze Age, 6,000 years ago. The ancient remains are said by some to be the origins of the legend of ‚Cantre‚r Gwealod‚ , a mythical kingdom now submerged under the waters pif Cardigan Bay
4/30 Bowhead whale genome, linked to cancer resistance, DNA damage repair and increased longevity, mapped by scientists
In a UK-based study, scientists working together with scientists in Alaska, Denmark, Ireland, Spain and South Korea successfully mapped the genome of the bowhead whale - the longest-living mammal - identifying a number of genes that are linked to cancer resistance, DNA damage repair and increased longevity
5/30 Researchers develop 'imaginary meal' pill
An 'imaginary meal' pill called fexaramine has been developed by researchers at the Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory
6/30 Scientists prolong lifespan of flies
Scientists at the Institute of Cell Biology, in Switzerland, have successfully managed to prolong the lifespan of flies, activating a gene that destroys unhealthy cell
7/30 Green tea can help cure oral cancer
Green tea can help kill off cancerous cells, say researchers
8/30 Mars once had a large ocean covering a large portion of its northern hemisphere
Almost half of the northern hemisphere of Mars was once covered by a large ocean that held 20 million cubic kilometres of water: more than the Artic Ocean
9/30 Offices playing natural sounds can boost worker moods and improve cognitive abilities
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute learned that offices which play natural sounds such as ocean waves, trees and bird calls can boost the moods of workers and improve their cognitive abilities, as well as providing privacy (by masking speech)
10/30 Impact glass may exist on Mars
Brown University researchers found that spectral signals indicate the existence of “impact glass” on the surface of Mars, with specific deposits conserved in craters
11/30 Fathers experience weight gain
Fathers have been found to experience weight gain and a rise in their body mass index (BMI), according to a research conducted by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The study, which followed over 10,000 men throughout a 20 year period, also revealed that the men who didn’t become fathers actually lost weight
12/30 The world's oldest skull
Divers Alberto Nava and Susan Bird discover the world's oldest skull found in an underwater cave in Mexico, believed to be the earliest trace of first Americans
13/30 Scientists create “intelligent” mice that do not experience fear or anxiety
Scientists participating in a joint University of Leeds and Mount Sinai Hospital study managed to alter a gene within mice; improving their intelligence and reducing their ability to feel anxious or fear. The discovery could prove instrumental in research into age-related cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia
14/30 Paralysed man walks again
The ‘brain-computer interface’ system will be improved by developing an implantable version, say experts. A 26-year-old male who had suffered a spinal cord injury which had paralysed him from the waist down was given the ability to walk again by scientists, who rerouted brain waves to electrodes on his knees.The doctors responsible said that he was the first person with paraplegia caused by a spinal injury given the ability to walk without relying on manually controlled robotic limbs
15/30 Discovery of the medieval royal palaces
Archaeologists in southern England have discovered what may be one of the largest medieval royal palaces ever found – buried under the ground inside a vast prehistoric fortress at Old Sarum. The probable 12th century palace was discovered by archaeologists, using geophysical ground-penetrating ‘x-ray’ technology to map a long-vanished medieval city which has lain under grass on the site for more than 700 years
16/30 The world's rarest diamond
This rare diamond that survived a trip from deep within the Earth's interior confirmed that there is an ocean’s worth of water beneath the planet’s crust
17/30 Virtual reality can revolutionise healthcare
Cardiologists at the Institute of Cardiology in Poland have successfully used virtual reality to restore blood flow to a blocked artery, leading the way for it to revolutionise certain aspects of healthcare, in surgical procedures and during training. Using wearable virtual reality equipment, similar to that of Google Glass, developed specifically for the surgical procedure, doctor completed the difficult procedure
18/30 Puppies born by IVF in the US
After years of failed attempts, scientists at Cornell University successfully bred the world's first puppies born through IVF, allowing for research into the conservation of endangered breeds and protection of those that are at risk of disease
19/30 Cancer is caused by environmental factors
Research into the causes of cancer concluded that, on the whole, it is due to environmental factors, not, as was previously thought, “bad luck”
20/30 Fossil fight
'Astounding' fossil find from Montana revealing two dinosaurs locked in mortal combat
21/30 Fusion reactors could become economically viable
Researchers at Durham University and the Oxfordshire Culham Centre for Fusion Energy have found fusion reactors could become economically viable ways of generating electricity in just a few decades, telling politicians and policy makers to begin the process of planning for their introduction and the replacement of nuclear power stations. Analysis by these researchers has found that the costs associated with fusion power shows its feasibility, when compared with traditional fission reactors, generating electricity at a similar price
22/30 Discovery of the whale skeletons
Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena, next to the Pan-American Highway in the Atacama Region of Chile
23/30 Discovery of The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are almost 1,000 biblical manuscripts discovered in the decade after the Second World War in what is now the West Bank. The texts, mostly written on parchment but also on papyrus and bronze, are the earliest surviving copies of biblical and extra-biblical documents known to be in existence, dating over a 700-year period around the birth of Jesus. The ancient Jewish sect the Essenes is supposed to have authored the scrolls, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, although no conclusive proof has been found to this effect
24/30 Complete mammoth skeleton discovered
The first complete mammoth skeleton to be found in France for more than a century was uncovered in a gravel pit on the banks of the Marne, 30 miles north-east of Paris. Picture shows experts at work making a silicon cast of the mammoth's tusk
25/30 Byzantine mosaic discovered
Plans for a walkway at the centre of the furious dispute over Jerusalem's holiest site were delayed by the discovery of a Byzantine mosaic
26/30 Neolithic 'lost avenue' - prehistoric stone circle discovered
The discovery of a Neolithic 'lost avenue' was described as one of the most important finds of the last century. Since the 1700s, archeologists and historians have argued over the existence of the huge sarsen stones, which were unearthed at the site of the world's biggest prehistoric stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire
27/30 Ancient gold found near Stonehenge
Gold fitting for a dagger sheath (around 1900 BC.) found near Stonehenge
28/30 The Rosetta Stone discovery
The Rosetta Stone is a basalt slab inscribed with a decree of pharaoh Ptolemy Epiphanes (205-180 BC) in three languages, Greek, Hieroglyphic and Demotic script. Discovered near Rosetta in Egypt
29/30 We are made from stardust
In 1957, a paper was published which said we are all made of stardust. Well, not quite that, but almost. Four scientists of the University of Cambridge, Fred Hoyle, William Fowler and Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, had conducted extensive research into stellar nucleosynthesis, the theory that all elements are created in the oldest chemical factories in the universe - stars. This paper, called ‘Synthesis of the Elements in Stars’, but better known as B2FH because of the initials of its authors, was at odds with the theory common at the time that all the elements were synthesised during the Big Bang. B2FH argued that when a star ages and dies it will enrich the interstellar medium with heavier elements, from which new stars - and, presumably, we - are formed
30/30 Optical fibres discovery
The internet is a truly incredibly thing, but we all hate it when it works too slowly. That’s where optical fibres come in. Made of a high quality extruded glass called silica, they guide light through a process of refraction, and in doing so are able to transmit bandwidths at a remarkably high speed and over remarkably long distances. As such, they are used in telecommunications and computer networking to speed up internet connections, able to do so due to the fact that the total internal refraction of light means very little data is lost. And the best thing about optical fibres is when at Imperial College London they were first demonstrated to be able to ‘bend’ light by Harold Hopkins and Narinder Kapany, dubbed the ‘founding father of fibre optics’
Saying “my heart fell” when he heard the news, the lead researcher, Professor Isaac Silvera, revealed this catastrophic failure had resulted in the loss of the sample.
“I’ve never seen a diamond shatter like that. It was so powdered on the surface, it looked like baking soda or something like that,” he said.
“I didn’t believe it was diamond, it was such a fine powder.”
There are a number of possible explanations for the lack of any evidence of metallic hydrogen in the remains.
It could be that the tiny sample is lost somewhere within the metal ‘gasket’ used to contain it between the crushing pressure of the diamonds.
It might also mean that metallic hydrogen is unstable and turns into a gas when it is at room temperature and normal pressure, in what would be a major setback for any hopes of a new wonder material.
But a number of physicists have also claimed that the sample was never actually created in the first place.
Writing in the journal Nature, they claimed measurements of the sample’s reflective qualities were not conclusive proof of metallic hydrogen.
However Professor Silvera, who has been attempting to create metallic hydrogen for decades, said the absence of metallic hydrogen “suggests nothing, it suggests we couldn’t find it”.
“The sample is in the wreckage some place or it’s not meta-stable and it disappeared, it turned into a gas,” he said.
“If it was meta-stable and if it could withstand the shock of a catastrophic failure, it would still be in the gasket.”
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/20 'Tiny vampires' existed millions of years ago
Scientists have discovered that microscopic 'vampire' amoebae existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and they may have been some of the first predators on Earth. By examining ancient fossils with an electron microscope, paleobiologist Susannah Porter from UC Santa Barbara discovered tiny holes which may have been drilled by vampiric microbes. The tiny creatures are believed to be the ancestors of modern Vampyrellidae amoebae, and punctured holes in their prey before sucking out the contents of their cells
2/20 Kepler 62f
An Earth-like planet orbiting a star 1,200 light years away could have conditions suitable for life, say scientists. Kepler 62f is about 40 per cent larger than the Earth and may possess surface oceans. It is the outermost of five planets circling a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun discovered by the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope in 2013
3/20 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
4/20 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
5/20 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
6/20 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
7/20 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
8/20 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
9/20 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
10/20 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
11/20 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
12/20 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
13/20 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
14/20 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
15/20 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
16/20 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
17/20 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
18/20 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
19/20 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
20/20 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
He is due to speak about his research at an American Physical Society meeting the next few weeks.
And, by then, Professor Silvera hopes to have reproduced the same result that saw people queuing up in his laboratory for a look at the first piece of metallic hydrogen on Earth.
“We’ve got a pair of diamonds that we are now preparing for a run,” he said.
“There were a few Doubting Thomases, so we decided we should just reproduce it [use the same method].”
The controversy exists because Professor Silvera and fellow physicist Ranga Dias decided to keep the sample within the grip of the diamonds and study its properties, rather than risk removing it because of the danger that it was unstable and would be lost.
This meant it could only be viewed through the distorting prism of the diamonds.
And a sliver of non-metallic and transparent aluminia had been used to protect the diamonds from the hydrogen, which can cause them to become brittle and break under pressure.
So some experts suggested that the reflections used as evidence of metallic hydrogen could have actually come from the alumina, after it was changed into a metal by the extreme pressure.
Professor Silvera was adamant.
“Right now we think we have enough evidence that there should be no doubt it is metallic,” he said.
“I’m completely confident of the measurements we have made.”
He said recent research had showed that alumina would not have changed into a metal under the conditions it experienced in the experiment.
The search for metallic hydrogen is a competitive field with a number of teams around the world all striving for the same breakthrough.
“There have been a number of attempts to make metallic hydrogen. There have been several claims of metallic hydrogen,” Professor Silvera said.
“I’ve worked on this for many years. When I see a claim I examine it. I’ve written three or four papers when people make claims saying there’s evidence of metallic hydrogen.
“We would not have published a paper if we weren’t confident that it was metallic, especially after having refuted several other people who had claimed to have made metallic hydrogen.”
When the researchers' original paper in the journal Science was published, the congratulations had flooded in with even some from competitors.
They decided to open the lab for three hours so anyone could come in and look through the microscope trained on the historic sample.
“We said we would start it at 11am until 2pm. But someone came in at 7.30am and people were coming in all day long, just streaming in because it was something unique to see metallic hydrogen for the first time,” Professor Silvera said.
And he expressed confidence the results of their experiment would be repeated when they try again in the next few weeks and an almost incredibly shiny piece of metallic hydrogen will be once again on show.
“I’ll tell you what you will see with your eye because it will be reflecting like a mirror.”
This article has been edited to make clear non-metallic alumina, not metallic aluminium, was used to protect the diamonds from the hydrogen.