Poignancy in physics: Retraction for “fatal error” that couldn’t be patched

prl-bannerIn August of last year, Mladen Pavičić, chair of physics at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Civil Engineering, published a paper in Physical Review Letters on quantum teleportation, “Near-Deterministic Discrimination of All Bell States with Linear Optics.”

Just six days later, after hearing from a physicist in China, Pavičić — who is also affiliated with Harvard’s physics department — submitted a correction, which ran on the journal’s site in November. The correction begins:

A miscalculation occurred. HWP(0) clashed with Eq. (9). I removed it and recalculated all. The main idea of the Letter remains about the same.

The correction goes on for a while, explaining the recalculations and resulting changes in the paper. It ends:

We thank Yu-Bo Sheng (Tsinghua University and Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China) for bringing this error to our attention.

Sometime after the correction ran, Pavičić heard from another student in China, about another error. He tried to fix that one too. But it didn’t work out. Earlier this year, Pavičić retracted the paper:

I hereby retract my paper [1] due to a fatal error I explained in [2]. All my attempts to patch the error have failed.

I thank Shi-Lei Su, a student from Yan Bian University, Ji Lin Province, China for bringing the error to my attention.

Are we the only ones who find “All my attempts to patch the error have failed” a poetic, no-nonsense way to express mature scientific resignation?

Reference 2 is a preprint in arXiv that includes this passage:

Since the error from the original paper [1]—which makes the proposed setup unfeasible—proved to escape immediate recognition by the physicists who considered the details of the paper I think that it would be of service to the community to comment on the approaches that can and canot be taken in attempts to reach the aforementioned goal or to prove it unreachable.

Imagine if every author who had to retract a paper wrote an entirely new one just to explain what went wrong — and thanked the student who brought the error to his or her attention.

Kudos, Dr. Pavičić.

2 thoughts on “Poignancy in physics: Retraction for “fatal error” that couldn’t be patched”

  1. “Imagine if every author who had to retract a paper wrote an entirely new one just to explain what went wrong” – unfortunately, for most retracted papers covered by RW this would violate the author’s right to remain silent.
    Mladen Pavičić reminds me of my math professor whose calculus lectures I attended. Once, during a chalk talk, he went astray with a proof. All attempts to fix the problem did not work out but, finally, following clues from the audience he managed to correct everything. After that he turned around and, with a broad smile, said: “Well, I have never been good at math”.

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