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Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World

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Overview

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. 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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.”—American Scientist Magazine

“Reich’s readable account of a fairly recent science fraud, is valuable chiefly as a close look at the 'kitchen' where scientific results are assembled and validated—and whence occasionally comes forth something that should not have seen the light of day.”—John Derbyshire, The Wall Street Journal

“Reich pursues this affair in depth…does an excellent job of dealing with the facts of the Schön case”—Martin Blume, Nature

 

"Eugenie Samuel Reich offers an inside look into how the scientific establishment deals with human imperfection. Plastic Fantastic is a transfixing cautionary tale of how easily wrongdoers can hide and thrive in modern science." —Jörg Blech, author of Inventing Disease and Pushing Pills

"In a warts 'n all expose of the scientific process, Eugenie Reich investigates the world's greatest scientific fraud. Fascinating, startling and highly readable. If you thought science was as pure as the driven snow, prepare to be shocked." —Justin Mullins, consultant editor, New Scientist

“A riveting tale of scientific detective work, and a story about an important issue in science that is often overlooked. A well researched page-turner.” —Amir Aczel, author of Fermat’s Last Theorem

 

Publishers Weekly
Reich, a former editor at New Science, unravels the absorbing story of Jan Hendrik Schön, a researcher at the prestigious Bell Laboratories from 1998 to 2002, who achieved star status in cutting-edge materials technology-super-conductivity, lasers, nanotechnology-by falsifying data. A graduate of Germany's "low key" University of Konstanz, he dove immediately into "a demanding environment... known for big discoveries, ambitious expectations." When his papers on experiments with organic crystals were rejected, he manipulated data and made false claims; publication followed. When the tech bubble burst, Bell came under increasing pressure from parent company Lucent to justify its existence; short-circuiting the normal process of peer review, the lab turned to public relations, "press-releasing exciting scientific findings" to fool investors, customers and Lucent into believing Bell had "a sound long-term technological future." Reich's clear explanation gives general readers a real sense of the excitement generated in the scientific community by Schön's "discoveries," how he made them appear credible and how his ability to dissemble eventually failed him; he also raises profound ethical questions that resonate with current concerns over science and its place in the public sphere.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Blow-by-blow account of how a Bell Labs researcher scammed his colleagues and the physics community. Former New Scientist editor Reich looks at the career of German researcher Jan Hendrik Schon, who claimed to have built electronic chips that performed amazing feats. Supposedly made of crystallized organic materials, the chips promised radical breakthroughs in computer technology. After graduating from the University of Konstanz, Schon came to the attention of Bertram Batlogg, a highly respected Bell Labs manager who specialized in superconductivity. In 1998, searching for a junior researcher to work with organic crystals he hoped might replace silicon as the basis of chips, Batlogg took Schon on the recommendation of Ernst Bucher, who had overseen Schon's doctorate thesis. Reich is undecided whether Schon was already fabricating data from his experiments, but the author does show that he already had a habit of fudging calculations to make his results resemble the most probable curve. He also hated to disagree with his colleagues. This, Reich argues, led him to exploit the margin of error in his experimental results to make his findings match expectations. But in the fast-paced atmosphere of Bell Labs, something beyond the ordinary was expected. Schon began to publish a series of papers in leading journals, claiming increasingly spectacular results: an organic laser, a light-emitting transistor, even a transistor made from a single molecule. All were faked. Reich meticulously documents Schon's rise to stardom, the doubts when others failed to replicate his experiments and his exposure as a fraud. Along the way, she examines the culture that permitted him to succeed for as long as he did.Slow in spots, but a compelling look inside big science at one of its least admirable moments.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780230623842
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/27/2010
  • Series: MacSci Series
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 826,126
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Eugenie Samuel Reich is a former editor at New Scientist. She has written for Nature, New Scientist, and The Boston Globe, and is known for her hard hitting reports on irregular science. Several of her reports have resulted in institutional investigations. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

• Into the Woods

• Hendrik

• 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’

• Epilogue

• Notes and Additional References

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 12, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A true story about false science - but why did he do it?

    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

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