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Physics and Pixie Dust

David Kaiser

PLASTIC FANTASTIC: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World. Eugenie Samuel Reich. iv + 266 pp. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. $26.95.

For many years, historians of the Renaissance have lauded the value of forgeries and fakes. Counterfeit documents, passed off as real, offer invaluable clues about the wider culture in which they were made. They illuminate subtle, taken-for-granted assumptions and habits of the time; after all, forgers must have had particular ideas in mind about what counted as genuine when crafting their fakes. Anthony Grafton, the distinguished Princeton historian, has gone even further. In his 1990 book, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship, Grafton argues that much of what we recognize as scholarship in the humanities today—entire fields such as literary criticism, jurisprudence, the history of ideas, religion, art and more—matured thanks to a constant back-and-forth engagement with frauds and forgeries. Those fields took form by honing esoteric techniques for scrutinizing documents and works of art, perpetually improving clever ways to sort authentic wheat from forged chaff. A kind of arms race ensued: As methods for detecting forgeries improved, forgers grew more sophisticated in designing fakes, and so on down through the ages.

What could that possibly have to do with modern science? A great deal more than we might suspect. Just in the past few years, the scientific world has been rocked by a series of high-profile frauds. Within the physical sciences, accusations arose in 2002 of data rigging in a search for exotic nuclei at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The curious story of Igor and Grichka Bogdanov broke that same year: Twin theoretical physicists working in France, they were widely suspected of having succeeded in getting nonsense articles through peer review at major physics journals. Then it was the biologists’ turn. Late in 2005, South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk was accused of having fabricated the data on which at least two of his articles in Science about stem cells and cloning were based. A few weeks earlier an MIT associate professor of biology, Luk Van Parijs, had been dismissed for fabricating and falsifying data in a paper published in Nature Genetics as well as in unpublished manuscripts and on grant applications.

But one fraud outstripped them all, eclipsing the others with its sheer audacity. Between 2000 and 2002, Jan Hendrik Schön, a researcher at Bell Laboratories, published more than 20 articles on electrical properties of unusual materials. He shot to the very top of the booming field of “molecular electronics”—a wonder field in which researchers aim to shrink computer chips down to single-molecule components. At Schön’s peak, he was submitting 4 or 5 articles per month, most of them going to top journals like Science and Nature. He hit his record in autumn 2001, turning out 7 articles that November alone. The output was staggering. It’s rare for a scientist—even a string theorist, beholden neither to instruments nor to data—to submit 7 articles in an entire year, let alone one month. And Schön’s papers were no run-of-the-mill exercises. In them, he announced one unbelievable discovery after another: He had created organic plastics that became superconductors or lasers; he had fashioned nanoscale transistors; and more. The editors of Science hailed one of his many contributions as a “breakthrough of the year” in 2001. The CEO of Lucent Technologies (parent company of Bell Labs) likewise touted Schön’s work when courting investors. Everything Schön touched seemed to turn to research gold.

Alas, it was fool’s gold. Following a formal investigation in 2002, Bell Labs dismissed Schön. The investigating committee, chaired by Stanford professor Malcolm Beasley, considered serious allegations against 24 papers by Schön and his coauthors, including 8 published in Science and 5 in Nature. The committee concluded that at least 16 of the papers showed clear evidence of scientific misconduct. Another 6 struck the committee as “troubling,” even if they were not indisputably the result of intentional fraud.

According to the Beasley committee, Schön’s misconduct fell into three basic categories: “substitution of data,” “unrealistic precision of data” and “results that contradict known physics.” The “substitution” charge was that Schön recycled graphs representing data from one type of material, changed axes or labels, and passed them off as coming from different materials. The second two charges involved either heavy-handed manipulation of data—such as replacing raw data with averaged, filtered or smoothed curves—or the fabrication of entire data sets out of thin air. Some graphs in the suspect articles, for example, appeared to have been generated by matching a known equation, with no experimental input whatsoever.

Eugenie Samuel Reich has written an impressive, sobering book about Schön’s rapid rise and precipitous fall. One might have expected such a book to face a serious narrative challenge: Just as in the movie Titanic, we all know how the story will end. In Reich’s case, the culprit has been caught; where is the mystery? Reich turns this challenge into an asset. This is not a simple whodunit. Like historians of the Renaissance, Reich has an interesting and important point to make. She skillfully leverages the Schön case into a wider inquiry into the mores of modern science.

The analogies with Grafton’s work on Renaissance forgeries are remarkable: not just the prevalence of fraud in each domain, but the means by which forgers crafted their fakes, and the feedback loops connecting forgers and other researchers. Schön, like his forging forebears, worked with a particular idea of what real or legitimate knowledge claims should look like. He sought to make his fakes fit in rather than stand out, massaging his data to better match established predictions. The detail with which he gilded his fakes—put in to confer a sense of realism—began to trip him up, just as with forgeries of yore. The first serious inquiry into Schön’s work arose when a fellow specialist noticed that some of Schön’s data fit theoretical expectations too well. Theory suggested that a certain relationship between two parameters should follow a bell-shaped curve on average. Schön’s data fit a perfect bell-shaped curve, with none of the noise or jitter that usually marks authentic experimental data.

Schön’s work, like that of long-ago forgers, also had a convoluted provenance. As Grafton explains, literary forgers often found it useful to concoct an elaborate story about why the original document they claimed to have discovered was no longer available for others’ inspection. (“I stumbled upon these ancient papyri in my fields, but they crumbled to dust just after I managed to transcribe them.”) So, too, with Schön. He conducted nearly all of his experiments at his former laboratory in Germany, where he had completed his doctorate, rather than on site at Bell Labs. When colleagues occasionally expressed curiosity about how he prepared his samples or undertook his measurements, Schön could throw up his hands and explain that the apparatus was several thousand miles away. Schön also maintained that he was in the habit of deleting all computer files of raw data—he later claimed that his computers lacked adequate storage space to keep the original data files—saving instead only the results after data had passed through various layers of analysis.

Most interesting is that Schön’s frauds actually benefited from rigorous peer review at elite journals, much as earlier forgers benefited from the advanced techniques of text-obsessed humanists. The critiques and suggestions that Schön received in referee reports told him exactly what it would take to convince skeptics about new findings. If his amazing plastics really did show evidence of superconductivity, reviewers pressed, had Schön checked for such and such effects or measured this or that parameter? Schön could then deliver those results right back, in perfect keeping with expectations.

Reich expands her story beyond the minutiae of how Schön crafted his fakes. The official inquiry, chaired by Beasley, exonerated all of Schön’s coauthors and colleagues of any wrongdoing. Some of Schön’s former managers even won awards for their handling of the allegations. Yet Reich is unconvinced by the “one bad apple” account, and she makes a compelling argument.

As Reich documents, managers at Bell Labs repeatedly turned a blind eye toward early warnings that all might not be right with Schön’s work. The managers might not have been guilty of fraud, but they certainly committed serious crimes against common sense. No one writes seven articles in a month—that’s about one new article every four days. Ordinarily, a topflight researcher might publish a dozen or so articles in Science and Nature over the course of his or her entire career, not during one summer. Schön’s managers were all too eager—desperate, one suspects—to believe in pixie dust and fairies.

Those managers had reasons to welcome Schön’s alluring offerings. The dot-com stock bubble had burst, sending the finances of Bell Labs into free fall. The laboratory began to hemorrhage researchers; its Physical Research Laboratory lost half its staff between 1997 (the year before Schön arrived as a postdoc) and 2001. A wave of corporate restructuring brought in more middle managers with less lab-bench experience. The fast-changing organization charts led to a management vacuum: Over the course of just a few months in 2001, Schön answered to three different managers in succession. The managers, in turn, were all too happy to see their star researcher churn out stupendous results at very low cost. They began to tell other staff scientists to stop asking for expensive equipment and act more like Schön.

Nor were the managers at Bell Labs alone in wishing upon a star. Reich hunted down correspondence between editors and reviewers pertaining to 17 of Schön’s article submissions. She discovered a pattern of solicitous editors—both Nature and Science were eager at just that time to increase their publications in areas such as materials science and nanotechnology, so as to counter the journals’ heavy concentration on biomedical topics. Editors often fast-tracked Schön’s articles, sending them out for fewer rounds of peer review than usual. Schön’s papers in Science, for example, made it into print more than 25 percent faster than the journal’s average. Reich found evidence that on at least one occasion, editors at Science broke their own written policy and accepted a paper by Schön on the basis of only a single referee report.

The excesses of the Schön case—like the fantastic forgeries of previous eras—throw light onto habits and practices that have come to seem normal. The relentless rat race to produce new results quickly in order to secure the next round of funding or promotion is not without consequences. The cozy relationship between prestigious scientific journals like Science and Nature and journalists—who receive prepublication copies of “hot” articles under special embargo, allowing them to prepare accompanying news coverage—entangles scientists, laboratories’ press relations staff, journal editors, investors and others in dizzying webs of potential conflicts of interest. Schön clearly broke the rules. But the rules, Reich suggests, could use a fresh look, too.

Reich, a former reporter and editor at New Scientist, has done a remarkable amount of sleuthing. Her account is based on interviews with 125 scientists and journal editors, several of whom also shared unpublished correspondence, e-mails, article drafts and more. She undertook some forensics of her own as well, unearthing a few more instances of Schön’s chicanery that had been missed.

The one shortcoming of the book is that most of Reich’s impressive legwork is inadequately reflected in the endnotes. The notes almost exclusively cite published materials, which make up only a small portion of the wide-ranging materials on which the account is based. For a book that so meticulously reconstructs Schön’s failure to properly handle and document his data, the lightweight endnote apparatus comes as something of a disappointment.

Otherwise, Reich’s Plastic Fantastic offers a compelling, timely and well-written dissection of our era’s most outrageous scientific fraud, and of what it means for science today.

David Kaiser is an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Physics. His first book, Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics (2005), received the 2007 Pfizer Award from the History of Science Society for best book in the field. He is currently completing a book titled How the Hippies Saved Physics.

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