Jul 262011

Book Review

Eugenie Samuel Reich, author of the book "Plastic fantastic - How the biggest fraud in physics shook the scientific world"

„Plastic Fantastic – How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific world“

by Eugenie Samuel Reich (Macmillan Publishers 2009, ISBN-10: 0-230-22467-9)

“He looked just like you and me. Just like everybody else. Who would have thought that he’d be capable of such things…?”, was Bob Cava’s first comment when we got to talk to him about Jan Hendrik Schoen, the person whose name stands for one of the biggest and most sensational cases of scientific fraud in the history of science. Prof. Cava was a colleague of Jan Hendrik Schoen at Bell labs before he took on a professorship at Princeton University and saw him coming and going to his lab, working on his computer, having his lunch break.

“Who would have thought that he’d be capable of such things” – this phrase awkwardly sounds familiar, but not from the context of science. Rather it is connected with one’s favourite crime and mystery show or with reading the latest detective story. A normal looking man coming to mess up your world, threatening security and defying rules and laws – this is superb material for the next episode of “Tatort” or “Criminal Minds”.

Indeed, Eugenie Samuel Reichs book about the Schoen scandal reads like a documentary of a scientific crime. Jan Hendrik Schoen, a postdoc from Konstanz, Germany, arrives at the prestigious Bell Laboratory run by AT&T in January 1997 to work on field-effect transistor experiments using organic crystals. Expectations are high, the supervisor, Bertram Batlogg, wants to prove that he can do more than high temperature superconductivity – the topic that he had gained a splendid reputation for. But getting hands on such a new and experimental field is hard and laborious, so Jan Hendrik Schoen commits the worst crime possible in science: He falsifies data.

No ingredient for a good crime story is missing: There is the criminal, Jan Hendrik Schoen. There are his victims: Supervisors, whose names got stained by the fraud, on the one hand, and Ph. D. students, whose careers got ruined because they unsuccessfully tried to replicate his experiments, on the other. And there are detectives, skeptical scientists like nobel prize winner Robert Laughlin, who doubted the credibility of Schoen’s claims and who finally tracked down duplicated data in his publications in 2002.

But Reich is well aware that crimes you observe in reality are far more complex than crimes on TV. Who really is a victim and who is a wrongdoer? Shouldn’t Schoen’s co-authors and supervisors take blame for being starry-eyed and deprived of judgment by the wish of getting a piece of Schoen’s cake?

Reich’s account of the case is therefore connected with a detailed study of the scientific community. Trying to explain how Schoen could falsify data for almost five years without anyone proving him wrong, she does not only consider Schoen’s character and intrinsic motivation. Reading about the competitive environment at Bell Labs, the “Publish or Perish” imperative and how scientists are “slaves to publication”, the difficulty of whistleblowers to allege a fellow scientist guilty of fraud, and the lack of communication among the “detectives”, gives a realistic account of the way science nowadays works.

But the author frames this comprehensive account with the following question: Is the Schoen scandal the story about how science succeeds in self-correcting? Or is it a story about how it fails?

In my opinion, this is not the most important question to be asked about the case. The fraud eventually came to light and, taking into account how sensational Schoen’s claims were, it would have been detected in any way. Science is definitely self-correcting if the claims at question are important enough.

I think the Schoen scandal poses a different and far more problematic question.

Before getting persecuted for fraud, Jan Hendrik Schoen was the embodiment of a successful scientist. He was so highly celebrated that the Max-Planck Society intended to appoint him to become the youngest director of a Max-Planck Institute ever. His work was full of sensational claims, maybe not claims that revolutionized physics but achievements that everybody predicted to be accomplished in the near future and they were all accomplished by Schoen. In 2001 alone, he published 17 papers in the journals Nature and Science, only occasionally writing technical, full papers to describe in detail what he did for fellow scientists. His research strolled along like a mystery, like a dream coming true. When Horst Ludwig Stoermer, nobel prize winner and director of Bell Labs until 1997, was confronted with the lacking reproducibility of Schoen’s work, he supposedly said: “Hendrik has magical hands!” – as if this could explain everything.

The scientist appears as a brilliant magician, magically waving his hands to achieve what the world has been waiting for. Such a character splendidly fuels the drama in a good crime story, with the criminal as a bewitching wunderkind without morale.

But is this really the character that we want to conventionalize as the prototype scientist? Why do we ignore what science really is, namely hard work, frustration, failure, and confusion?

It is the wishful thinking, the gap between ideal and reality, the masquerade in science that is impressively demonstrated by the Schoen case. And it is this wishful thinking that blinded supervisors, publishers, referees, and colleagues of Jan Hendrik Schoen and made them overlook his flaws.

Like a good crime show, the danger of getting blinded like that should haunt every scientist’s sleep, waking him up at night shivering from the fear of losing their objective judgment to a magician.

And although Eugenie Reich suggest a different interpretation of the Schoen scandal, this page-turning tension grows with every new details on poor judgment and human weakness that she provides.

— Leonie Mueck

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