(Wired) Dutch physicist and Microsoft employee Leo Kouwenhoven published headline-grabbing new evidence that he had observed an elusive particle called a Majorana fermion in March 2018. Microsoft hoped to harness Majorana particles to build a quantum computer, which promises unprecedented power by tapping quirky physics.
Three years later, Kouwenhoven and his 21 coauthors released a new paper including more data from their experiments. It concludes that they did not find the prized particle after all. An attached note from the authors said the original paper, in the prestigious journal Nature, would be retracted, citing “technical errors.”
Microsoft provided a statement attributed to Kouwenhoven saying he could not comment, because the new paper that reinterprets his group’s results is undergoing peer review. Nature added an “editorial expression of concern” and a spokesperson said this week that the journal is “working with the authors to resolve the matter.” A spokesperson for Delft Technical University said an investigation by its research integrity committee, started in May 2020, is not complete. A person familiar with the process says the final report will likely find that researchers at Delft made mistakes but did not intend to mislead.
Frolov, the University of Pittsburgh researcher, says the questions around Kouwenhoven’s 2018 paper leave the small field of physics dedicated to detecting Majoranas “wounded,” facing a potentially unpleasant comedown after a period of high expectations. “We have good science to do with reasonable expectations, not magical expectations,” he says. Frolov says the group should release the full raw data from its experiments for outside scrutiny.
Sankar Das Sarma, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland who has collaborated with Microsoft researchers, believes the technology will eventually work, but it could take a while. He was a coauthor on both the disputed 2018 paper and the new version posted last month.
The Majorana drama is a setback for Microsoft’s ambitions to compete in quantum computing. Leading computing companies say the technology will define the future by enabling new breakthroughs in science and engineering.