Doing the right thing: Particle physicists pull paper after equation collides with the truth

physicalreviewlettersThree physicists at Imperial College London have retracted a paper on Coulomb collisions, a kind of fender bender between two charged particles, after realizing their equations were written wrong.

The mistake resulted in an erroneous conclusion about the strength of the collisions.

Here’s the notice for “Effects of Large-Angle Coulomb Collisions on Inertial Confinement Fusion Plasmas”:

Shortly after the publication of this Letter, it was brought to our attention that the results describing an increase in the rate of temperature equilibration of electrons and ions due to the inclusion of large-angle collisions in the2lnΛ5 regime were in conflict with the results of molecular dynamics (MD) simulations of the rate of temperature equilibration between electrons and ions [1–3]. While trying to understand this difference, an error was discovered in the Monte Carlo code in which the small-angle Coulomb logarithm was incorrectly set when large-angle collisions were included in simulations.

This error causes the strength of small-angle Coulomb collisions to be overestimated when large-angle Coulomb collisions are included. The removal of this error significantly affects the results on electron-ion temperature equilibration; with the error corrected, the increase in the rate of equilibration is no longer present. As this error affects only the small-angle Coulomb collisions, we expect that our results on the generation of knock-on ions, and the distortion away from Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution functions that they cause, to be broadly correct. However, the main conclusion of the Letter concerned the increase in electron-ion temperature equilibration due to large-angle collisions. As this increase has been found to be erroneous, we have decided to retract the Letter.

According to first author Arthur Turrell, the error was discovered after discussing similar work with a colleague who had achieved very different results. The group intends to republish their data once they have a corrected model.

The paper has yet to be cited, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

4 thoughts on “Doing the right thing: Particle physicists pull paper after equation collides with the truth”

  1. Of course they did the right thing. Falsification is impossible (or pointless) in mathematics and physics and similar areas.

    Let me be blunt: in the quantitative/mathematical fields of endeavor there is a very strong tradition of rigor and scientific honesty that is seemingly lacking in the much more glamorous and lucrative fields of biomedical research.

    Feel free to disagree.

    1. That’s right. In mathematics you may be recognized with few, carefully written papers, while in biomedical research you need about 10 publications per year. Harversting only the low hanging fruits is a mark of efficiency, but the real breakthroughs mostly occur in the long term sector.

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