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ICYMI: Metallic Hydrogen, and Other Science News

Over the past two weeks, President Trump's executive actions have crowded just about everything else out of the news. But, despite widespread anxiety about the new administration's attitude toward science, research is still chugging along. And, last week, we got a great glimpse of true scientific skepticism at work.

Two physicists from Harvard University published evidence that they had created metallic hydrogen. Of course, hydrogen is usually a gas. When chilled, it can become a liquid, such as hydrogen fuel. Metallic hydrogen is a form of the element that has long been theorized to exist at extremely high pressure and low temperature.

Part of the allure of metallic hydrogen is the pure Everest-esque "because it's there" drive of scientists. But, it's possible that, if it could be made in sufficient quantities, it might be a superconductor, even up to room temperature.

Making any of it is a long-standing challenge, though. The obstacle is creating enough pressure. In this case, the researchers used diamond anvils to squash hydrogen gas.

"This is basically like filing the ends off two little diamonds and pushing them together at pressures greater than you find in the middle of the Earth," explains Kerri Smith, host of the Nature podcast. "But their claim to have made this stuff has been quite controversial."

Others have tried to make metallic hydrogen before, and there have been prior claims that proved to be false alarms. So, there's ample reason for skepticism. As the old saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And many are saying this new publication falls short. 

"They don't have very many data points. They think they saw the hydrogen transition to a darker state, then to this metallic, reflective state that they say is suggestive of it becoming this new, metallic hydrogen," says Smith. "But there are some doubts about whether they've really seen what they say they've seen."

Smith says it's possible the Harvard team has more evidence that they didn't want to release all at once, but only time will tell.

For this and other weekly science headlines, check out the complete Nature Podcast.