The Korea Herald


[KH Explains] Did social upheaval fuel the superconductor hype?

Massive public engagement, far outpacing that of ChatGPT, might reflect deeper social sentiments from a chain of tragedies, science communication experts say

By Moon Joon-hyun

Published : Aug. 22, 2023 - 15:44

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The outsized reaction to the LK-99 superconductor in South Korea could very much be due to people’s desperate need to escape reality.

In the past few weeks, young Koreans online fantasized about a unified nation with dominant global power, all thanks to the homegrown invention of a room-temperature superconductor. These whimsical scenarios, spreading like wildfire on online communities and social media, portrayed a world where South Korea gets a seat at the UN Security Council, the won becomes the reserve currency and Sevit Island on the Han River floats to the sky like a scene from the film “Avatar.”

Superconductors, known for their ability to conduct electricity without any inefficiencies and create powerful magnets, usually require extremely cold conditions to function. This is why the Korean room-temperature variant, dubbed LK-99, has the potential to upend many industrial sectors and has been fiercely contested for validity around the world.

But some science communications experts have been more intrigued by the unusual public reaction rather than the science itself. The rapid and massive public engagement following an upload of a single science manuscript, especially among the youth, appeared to reflect deeper societal sentiments arising from recent natural disasters and tragedies.

“The intensity paints a more comprehensive picture in conjunction with a series of disheartening events in the nation,” said Kim Ji-hyeon, a professor of sociology of science at Korea University.

A series of unfortunate events

July and August were marked by significant societal disruptions. An underpass in Osong, a town in North Chungcheong Province, experienced deadly flooding with more than 20 casualties. An elementary school teacher in her 20s committed suicide in Seoul, sparking teacher-led protests for improved rights. Several violent stabbing incidents in recent weeks further unnerved the public.

According to Kim, these tumultuous events, coinciding with the release of the superconductor manuscript on July 22, might have provided the backdrop against which LK-99's discovery was received.

“The manuscripts uploaded on the day were preliminary versions, not yet peer-reviewed. Normally, such ideas undergo lengthy scrutiny and validation, to create reliable replications and tangible prototype applications. Even then it can only hope to get public attention," she said.

However, an early demonstration video of the compound levitating over a magnet released on July 26, despite missing a defining characteristic like the Meissner effect, immediately garnered public attention.

During the first week of August, posts about superconductors across social media, online forums and news outlets surged to 143,727, almost 10-fold the 15,209 posts made about ChatGPT during its peak in the third week of April, according to the local online big data tracker VAIV.

Notably, over 90 percent of the discussions about superconductors came from specialized platforms like Naver Cafe and DC Inside -- diverging from mainstream news channels or popular platforms like Instagram.

According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, around 30 percent of 1,000 adult men and women aged 20 to 59 heavily used these websites, spending more than an hour a day actively publishing posts and replies.

Jumping the gun

However, they may have jumped the gun, fueled by those desperate for some good news amid the string of unfortunate events.

"Regardless of scientific validity, one doesn’t need a Nobel Prize to realize that it’s too soon to bank hopes on, or even make fun of, a mere manuscript. It’s like anticipating a rollable iPhone from an Apple patent, though the memes were certainly addictive," said Kim Young-jin, a 24-year-old materials science and engineering major at Kyungpook National University.

Such premature excitement was not limited to South Korea. On Zhihu, China's equivalent to Quora, a post discussing LK-99's validity drew 150 million views, nearly matching the platform's monthly user count.

"Since establishing the Beijing National Laboratory for Condensed Matter Physics in 2003, China has been poised to leverage any significant breakthroughs in the realm of superconductors," said Seo Young-seok, a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology’s School of Science Journalism and director of the National Institute for Future Strategy and Technology Policy.

Seo believes that China would readily capitalize on the superconductor revelation if validated, striving to replicate or innovate around it. He speculated that this sentiment resonated with Chinese youth on Zhihu because the country recorded an alarming 21.3 percent unemployment rate for urban youths aged 16-24 this June.

Drawing a parallel, he cited the May data from Statistics Korea that approximately 660,000 Korean individuals between ages 20 to 39 chose not to work but to rest, a figure higher than the 40 to 59 age range, echoing the sentiment of looking for something transformational in their lives like their Chinese counterparts.

Across the world, superconductor was also among the top trending topics on X, making its way into meme culture as "floaty rocks." Numerous accounts pivoted from endorsing AI to championing superconductor stocks. This buzz caused the American Superconductor Corporation's stock to briefly double after July 27 before falling back to its original price.

“The explosive reaction shows a similar, widespread thirst for anything groundbreaking, be it generative AI or superconductors,” Seo said.

With mounting skepticism, especially from reputable sources like Nature magazine on Aug. 18, he voiced concerns about Korea's future in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A projected talent shortage in these fields could get worse if disillusionment with scientific claims grows.

But Kim of Korea University perceived an upside.

“Regardless of whether desperation or ambition might have fueled the superconductor mania, this is a good time to acknowledge the long-term nature of foundational science. Real hope lies in patience and support, even without tangible results,” she said.