Discovered in 1911 at temperatures near absolute zero, superconductivity is the loss of resistance to electrical current some materials display when cooled below a “critical temperature”. The phenomenon was confined to scientific laboratories until the late 1950s, when first technological applications became feasible. It also took nearly half a century before a theoretical explanation of the phenomena – the BCS theory – was formulated. In the following two decades, numerous researchers contributed to the field, but no materials were found with critical temperatures higher than 23 Kelvin (–250° Celsius). By the mid 1980s, the scientific community had reached the consensus that superconductivity was a closed field, and that the dream of room-temperature superconductors should be abandoned.
But the year 1986 changed this situation dramatically. Two researchers at the International Business Machines (IBM) lab near Zurich, Switzerland, discovered a new class of materials among the ceramic oxides that display superconductivity at temperatures far higher than previously observed.
High-temperature superconductivity was born.
A surprising discovery and its consequences
Like a minor earthquake, the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in late 1986 sent a shock wave through the research systems of the industrialized countries, exciting scientists, policy-makers, and the lay public alike. We followed the course of the discovery, intrigued to observe and analyze what the tremor revealed: which structures of the system of science and research proved robust and resistant, and what gave way, crumbling under the unexpected shake-up?
But above all, we wanted to investigate what researchers, science policymakers, industry, the media – and through them the general public – would make of the event.