Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific Worldby Eugenie Samuel Reich
Pub. Date: 05/12/2009
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Highly regarded science journalist Eugenie Samuel Reich recounts the case of wunderkind physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, who faked the discovery of a new superconductor at the world famous Bell Laboratories. Many of the world's top scientific journals and experts, including Nobel Prize-Winners, supported Schön, only to learn that they were the victims of the
Highly regarded science journalist Eugenie Samuel Reich recounts the case of wunderkind physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, who faked the discovery of a new superconductor at the world famous Bell Laboratories. Many of the world's top scientific journals and experts, including Nobel Prize-Winners, supported Schön, only to learn that they were the victims of the biggest fraud in science. What drove Schön, by all accounts a mild-mannered, modest, and obliging young man, to tell such outrageous lies? Reich dives into the riveting world of science to examine how fraud perpetuates itself today. Schön's rise and fall will be an essential and fascinating account of the missteps of the scientific community for years to come.
Table of Contents
• Into the Woods
• A Slave to Publication
• Greater Expectations
• Not Ready to be a Product
• Journals with "Special Status"
• Scientists Astray
• Plastic Fantastic
• The Nanotechnology Department
• The Fraud Taboo
• ‘Game Over'
• Notes and Additional References
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Plastic Fantastic by E.S. Reich The narrative in this book is truly fantastic, in the sense that the story is difficult to believe. If it were a work of fiction, readers would complain that the story is highly implausible. However, it is a true story, and as is the case with real life, leaves many unanswered questions. There are other books that describe scientific fraud. In addition, there are many reported cases of scientists who are tempted to over-interpret their data because they are under great pressure to publish or will slightly "bend" their data so that it provides a better fit with their favorite theory. In Plastic Fantastic, the "hero", Jan Hendrik Schön, has no real data and no favorite hypothesis of his own. He is working in a highly competitive field of organic electronics. The goal is to replace silicon with carbon-based materials, which is not explained especially well in the book. Briefly, a way to formulate carbon-based transistors, etc., would open the whole world of organic chemistry to further manipulation by physicists and initiate a new era for designing computers and other electronic devices. In her book, the author describes how Schön got started on the path to fraud and how it essentially took over his entire life until he was finally exposed. It is a fast-moving narrative and very intriguing even though the reader knows how the story will end. The disappointing part of the book is that motives for the actions of Schön and other members of the cast are not explored even in a speculative fashion. Why did Schön get away with his totally contrived results for such a long time? His immediate supervisor at Bell Labs, Batlogg, is a reputable scientist. Why did he never ask Schön to show him the raw data, especially when some of his results were rather controversial? Why did he accept that this one person in his lab was able to make so many spectacular break-throughs when other competent persons had not? Did Batlogg, and many of his peers, simply want to believe what was almost too good to be true? What were the motivations of the editors of the various scientific journals in which Schön published his results? Peer reviewers do not have access to the original data, but many of them did raise concerns with some of Schön's results. Apparently these were not always considered by the editors. Did they assume that anything from a prestigious institution such as Bell Labs would be solid no matter what? Were they worried about being held responsible for not quickly publishing these cutting-edge results? Were they too concerned about their rivals getting the chance to publish the material instead of them? Lastly, what was Schön's motivation? Was he mainly concerned about getting a secure and high paying position? This seems unlikely from Reich's portrait of him. He was already on the fast-track to a good position in either industry or academics and did not seem to be especially interested in making lots of money. If he felt compelled to manufacture data to get ahead, would it not have been more prudent to invent only one or two results or a minor bending of the data instead of a large body of fraud? Maybe he was just having too much fun! Unfortunately, we will never know. This is still a fascinating story and it is not over. Perhaps it is time for the psychologists to get involved and try to make some sense of i