Saturday, March 27, 2010

When Scientists Go Bad

All that glisters is not gold. ~ William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Not long ago, there was a program on the Science Channel that should have been very good. It wasn't, because it missed the point, big time.

The program was about Hendrick
Schön, an apparently brilliant young physicist, who was earning the admiration and envy of physicists everywhere for research he was doing on organic transistors. Unfortunately, his papers were based on fraudulent data.

The show I saw was the second try by the Science Channel to report this story. The first time, they spent more time talking alternately about the coming economic crash that would be caused by the "failure" of Moore's Law and by the devastation that would be caused by the solution to the "failure" of Moore's Law, nanobots. In the second version of the show, it appeared that the only concern was our destruction at the prosthetic hand of the nanobots, because they didn't mention Moore at the outset. Unfortunately, by the halfway point of the show, they felt they had to resurrect the ghost of Moore (poetical allusion; he's still alive).

In short over half of each program was dedicated not to the subject of
Schön's fraud but to the mythical end of the world as we know it.

In case you're curious, the economy was going to crash because Moore's Law was about to fail, because technology had reached a tipping point where manufacturing methods would not allow the increase of the number of transistors on a chip. This bit of nonsense ignored the advent of multicore chips, allowing even a modest PC to have the power of multiple computers. It also ignored the research going on in quantum computing, where atomic states substitute for the switching of transistors.

In short, computing power is nowhere near its limit.

The supposed answer to the Moore's Law dilemma was organic transistors or, more descriptively, molecular transistors, which is what
Schön's research was about. The show took the idea of molecular transistors, using carbon-based organic molecules and went all Terminator-II-meets-the Matrix on us. A silvery-gray goo would end up devouring all humanity, so either way, we're all gonna DIE!

This is what passes for science programming these days.

What the geniuses who put these shows together failed to recognize was that there were several huge issues staring them in their collective faces, none of which involved Gordon Moore or gray goo.

For example, how did
Schön manage to get so many papers accepted by Nature and other prestigious publications without the peer-review process catching his data shenanigans?

Or, why did Bell Labs, where
Schön worked, not have some sort of oversight that might have prevented Schön from creating this mess in the first place? And what of his co-authors? Each paper had co-authors, yet none of them had a clue that they were aiding and abetting a fraud?

Or, what do
Schön's actions say about the pressure to publish and the apparent unwillingness of other scientists to actually verify the work? And how many other researchers are doing this stuff?

Or, and this is the ultimate question, why did
Schön do this in the first place? Oh, they give a little lip service to the subject, but it doesn't appear that they talked to anyone who really could offer an opinion.

Oh, and what ever became of
Schön? There is not a word on this subject (he's working for a German engineering consulting firm, in case you're curious).

Fortunately, someone has addressed these questions in a book that I've just started reading, Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World , by Eugenie Samuel Reich. Ms. Reich, a science reporter has dug into
Schön's past and his thinking. In just the early sections I've read, it's clear that Schön really didn't think he was doing anything so wrong because he believed that the underlying science was correct. The inconvenience of the experiments not bearing the theory out was dealt with by cooking the books.

But the book also deals with the larger issues of scientific integrity, the pressure to publish to get grants, the culture in research that would allow something like this to happen, and so on. All of this is fascinating stuff that the Science Channel could have spent a little time discussing if they had bothered to talk to any of the people Ms. Reich has interviewed (like
Schön's boss at Bell Labs).

But that wouldn't be as much fun as doing animations of gray goo oozing over the landscape.

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