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Professor Victor Ninov was a high energy physicist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, specializing in the synthesis of massive elements.

According to his CV, Ninov received his B.S. in 1987 and his PhD in 1992, both from the University of Darmstadt. And by the late 1990s, his research included heavy element isotope production by compound-nucleus formation, the study of alpha-decay properties of heavy elements (Z>100), the design and implementation of detector, target and data acquisition systems, software for ion optical design of magnetic spectrometers, ion traps and storage rings, and the analysis of nuclear decay properties of neutron deficient isotopes along the neutron shell at N=126 and 152.

By the mid-1990s, Ninov had also established the research technique that would later make him famous -- to design computer software that only he knew how to use, and to use it to fabricate results saying that atomic synthesis experiments had been successful.

The first of Ninov's fraudulent analyses (that we have identified, at least) were (S. Hofmann et al. Zeitschrift fur Physik A 350, 277-280; 1995) and (S. Hofmann et al. Z. Phys. A 354, 229-230; 1996). These were experiments confirming the earlier discovery of elements 111 and 112. Sigurd Hofmann, the lead researcher on both of those papers, says that Ninov did the analysis for them and that the results "were spuriously created" through the introduction of data that did not match the raw data coming out of the reactor. Unfortunately, Hofman did not find the problem until 2002, much too late to stop the scandal that would come next.

In 1999, physicists at LBL announced that they had discovered elements 118 and 116 by smashing lead nuclei and krypton nuclei together (V. Ninov et al. Phys. Rev. Lett. 83, 1104; 1999). This was exciting news, and Ninov crowed "We jumped over a sea of instability onto an island of stability that theories have been predicting since the 1970s".

His team's method had been unusual in that it involved smashing together two heavy elements, rather than one heavy and one light. Over the course of ten days, Ninov's team bombarded a lead target with roughly a million trillion krypton ions. In the process, it appeared, they made three atoms of 118, which quickly decayed into 116, 114, and other elements.

This work made headlines around the world.

However, no other scientists were able to replicate the result, so the LBL team re-examined its original data. Looking at the raw data out of their reactor, they found no evidence that a super-heavy element had been created (Specifically, they saw no cascade of alpha particles that would have signalled the decay of a superheavy element). The lab concluded that the analysis in the original article was fabricated and that Ninov had been responsible. The evidence was, in fact, quite clear. Analysis of a computer log file gave evidence that data had been cut and pasted and numeric values had been changed.

Ninov defended himself by saying that many others had access to the computer containing the data. The labs were not persuaded, and fired him. He responded by filing a grievance with the University of California, which manages LBL for the Department of Energy (DOE). I do not know what has come of his grievance.

It had taken a year to confirm that something was awry. In one sense, that's pretty quick. In economics or history, academic dishonesty can lie hidden for decades. However, in physics it should be difficult to hide, as other researchers can always replicate your methods to see if they get the same results.

In this case, Ninov had been able to charge ahead because he was the only person who knew how to run the computer program that was used to analyze the data. The raw data wasn't published with the 1999 announcement either. It was more than a year before any of Ninov's colleagues learned to use the software, analyzed the original data, and found that the results reported earlier were not there.

In July 2002, all the authors of the original discovery paper except for Ninov published a retraction of their claim in Physical Review Letters. (Although Ninov's name appears on the retraction, he refused to sign off on it.) Both elements 116 and 118 vanished along with the spurious data.

New Scientist called 2002 "The year that physics lost its innocence". They were talking about Ninov, as well as the Igor and Grichka Bogdanov spoofs, and the embarassing fall of Jan Hendrik Schön.

Academic Press Daily Inscight, July 15, 2002
Science News Online, Volume 155, Number 24 (June 12, 1999)
J. Chem. Ed. December 2002, Vol. 79 No. 12, p. 139

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