Zack Geballe spent months screwing together pairs of polished diamonds at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Geophysical Laboratory. Theory predicted that squeezed between the diamonds’ tips could be one of the most miraculous substances of modern physics—a material that, at near room temperature, could transport electricity without losing power. He just needed to get the samples to Argonne National Lab outside Chicago to heat them up with laser pulses.
When Argonne beam line scientist Yue Meng turned the lasers on, all four diamonds cracked in half.
“It was a total catastrophe,” Geballe told me while I was visiting him at the Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, DC, this year.
But things have turned around in the past year; two competing teams of scientists have measured near-room-temperature superconductivity in a material called lanthanum hydride. Their success realizes the efforts of over a century of theories, experimental results, disappointments, and cracked diamonds. Nonetheless, their achievement is just one small advance from nearly 110 years of scientific development