Plastic Fantastic Plastic Fantastic by Eugenie Samuel Reich
Publisher: Macmillan
Year: 2009
Pages: 272

I remember only vaguely, back in 2002, the story of a scientist who had been exposed as one of the biggest frauds in history. At the time, I suppose, I didn’t follow science news nearly as much as I do now; on the other hands, it’s possible that even a story as big as “the greatest physics fraud in the last 50 years” still didn’t register much in the mainstream news.

When I read the premise of Plastic Fantastic, however, I remembered the scant attention I had paid to the story seven years ago.

The story of Jan Hendrik Schön begins around 1997, according to Eugenie Reich. That was around the time that Schön, who would eventually fool most of the physics community for 4 years, was working on his doctorate at the University of Konstanz, in Germany. Schön eventually found his way into Bell Labs, which at that point was the research wing of Lucent Technology1. Reich paints Schön the student as a bright, if not extroverted, brilliant, or adventurous student.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; since a reader of Reich’s book (published in 2009) has at least the distinct possibility of knowing about the scandal, Reich opens with an explicit acknowledgment and brief summary of it: Hendrik Schön, a German researcher at Bell Labs, garnered critical and mainstream praise as a scientific genius at the helm of a number of huge scientific breakthroughs before ultimately being exposed as a fraud who had faked most, if not all, of his data. It took, Reich figures, about four years for Schön’s deception to go from casual fudging of data to egregious, wholesale fabrication and eventual discovery. Does this, she asks, represent a success of the much-vaunted scientific self-correction process, or its abject failure? Let’s find out.

Schön is not the first scientist to engage in fraud; such activity tends to be a hobby horse for Reich, who has covered a number of such cases, included the one of the most recent highlighted cases—that of Hwang Woo-suk, the South Korean researcher who fabricated a number of experiments about cloning.

What makes the story of Hendrik Schön so interesting comes down to several points:

Schön’s fraud was committed not in isolation, but in the company of many esteemed colleagues at Bell Labs, at that time one of the more prestigious commercial research labs in the nation2. Rarely (if ever) did Schön submit papers without a coauthor, many of them either preeminent physicists in their own right—such as Bertram Batlogg—or bright, non-fraudulent up-and-comers such as Zhenan Bao. But none of these people were ever found (or even suspected as far as I know) to have committed fraud along with him. Generally speaking, the coauthorship happened as a matter of course, regardless of a particular author’s relative contribution or relevance to the paper. Otherwise, the working relationship was one of a real scientist proposing a hypothesis, and Schön conveniently providing the data to perfectly match it. The idea of a scientific fraud who had collaborators who were not conspirators strikes me as interesting, though it is of course damning to the notion of science as a self-correcting agent.

The fraud happened during a period of technology boom…. and bust. When Schön joined Bell Labs, the internet technology boom had inflated budgets, and Lucent had no qualms about sinking money into research of all kinds. However, the commercial nature of Bell Labs and its parent company, as well as the sudden pressure to produce exciting research once the bubble burst and funding dried up, created a somewhat unique environment that was particularly conducive to—if not outright fraud—scientific laxity.

Is it difficult, even from Reich’s thorough treatment, to get a handle on Hendrik Schön. Was he an intelligent person? In a literally textbook sort of way, it would appear so; but Schön never had any real feel or passion for physics: he was limited, as Reich points out on several occasions—by the bounds of the textbooks he read and the colleagues he interested with. This became part of his undoing: his reliance upon smooth, theoretical curves which matched theoretical/mathematical formulæ was the final clue that lead to his eventual disgrace. He didn’t seem to be motivated by money, though job security was of course important: he seems much more motivated by prestige, although it would appear from his behavior that one could also portray him as a person dedicated to pleasing those around him.

He was a facilitator, in other words: when a smart physicist had an idea, Schön would, like clockwork, come back the next week with a set of experimental figures that perfectly confirmed the hypothesis. A softspoken, amiable person, Schön eventually adjusted to the limelight as his rapid succession of breakthrough papers turned him into the rising start of the physics world.

The question remains, however: how did Schön manage so many fabrications before he was ultimately caught? Shouldn’t the world of science journalism guard against such things? The strength of Reich’s book is in how she handles the subject of fraud in the scientific community. Experimental methods, however rigorous they may be, operate on a certain level of mutual trust—especially when a scientist is connected to a prestigious institution like Bell Labs. When Schön produces “data”3 and proposes that it is correct and accurate, the rest of the scientific community—and even the coauthors of his papers—has little recourse but to assume he is telling the truth. And indeed they did, despite the uncannily perfect nature of Schön’s data. It wasn’t until a critical mass of suspicion—the duplication of graphs following theoretical transistor curves, the utter lack of repeatability of his experiments, his noted inconsistency at presentations and conferences—had built up that a few scientists4 gained to the courage to make cushioned accusations of fraud. This has in large part to do with the tremendous risk associated with such accusations: like British libel laws, much of the responsibility lies with the accuser to not only present sufficient evidence, but also to ultimately be right or possibly face ostracism and embarrassment. In other words, calling “Shenanigans!” in the science world takes just as much consideration as it might in most other professional environments: the charge is serious because trust is implicit, the burden of proof is high, and the risk is even higher.

The discussion must ultimately come back to Reich’s initial question: does the case of Hendrik Schön represent a failure or a success of the scientific method and its proposed self-corrective agency?

Consider that Schön’s period of truly active deception spanned a period of three or four years5; during that time, he published eight papers in Science, six in Physical Review Journals, and seven in Nature which were ultimately retracted. Is the failure here merely a function of time? If Schön’s fraud had been discovered within the span of a year, and a much smaller number of papers, would the tarnish to the scientific machine have been reduced? Or is the failure a function of the grandiosity of Schön’s claims? If he had not claimed a series of groundbreaking advancements, but instead a collection of smaller, more modest discoveries, would the span of time taken to discover his fabrications been less embarrassing to the establishment? Or perhaps this debacle is a function of lax editorial policies at scientific journals with broad readerships and somewhat higher demands for commercial success? Or the aforementioned push for “exciting” advances by commercially-funded labs such as Bell?

I should point out that I am no scientist, and therefore cannot speak with authority as to the vagaries of scientific publishing. I can say with some confidence, however, that scientists do not necessarily represent a more honest or more wonderful cross-section of humanity than any other profession6, though certainly the ramifications of their dishonestly may be felt more acutely.

Though Reich never really answers her initial question7, I am inclined to believe that its answer is friendly to science: though a black eye on its public face to be sure, Schoön’s deception and ultimate discovery is a textbook illustration of a self-corrective agency in the world of science. That it took as long as it did is an artifact of circumstance, for better or worse, but considering that scientific advancement sometimes functions on a span of decades, the requirement of four years (at most) to uncover and dispose of a scientific fraud is actually commendable, especially considering the mitigating factors.

Having talked enough about the book’s subject, I feel as though I should take a few moments to discuss the style: I’ve never read Eugenie Reich before, and while I generally enjoyed her approach, she makes a few mistakes that I must point out. First, and perhaps the most grating, she uses the word “orientate”8 on two separate occasions! Secondly, she tends to fall prey to a flimsy narrative device I have noticed before in other nonfiction writers—namely, a brief and unconvincing paroxysm of creativity when introducing a new character. The incidence of a new person, in Reich’s case, appears to necessitate a half-hearted introduction of the person, including a description of their hair, and perhaps their personality, lasting a few sentences, before moving on and never describing them again. It’s the sort of narrative device more at home in the screenplay of a Michael Bay movie, and seems out of place in decent science writing: either develop the characters or don’t, but sidelong descriptions are distracting and condescending, and don’t make for more interesting stories.

But this is a conceit of taste, and should not deter me from recommend Plastic Fantastic as not only a solid piece of science journalism, but also the best coverage of the Hendrik Schön saga. More to the point, it operates as a focus for discussions about the reliability and importance of science in an age where anti-intellectualism seems to be invading the public sphere—scientists are chai-latté-drinking liberals, after all—and such cases of fraud undermine the case of those who believe that the scientific is the last best hope of advancement. Plastic Fantastic is indeed fantastic, and I recommend you read it.

  1. Midway though the story, the Internet bubble burst, and the once-invincible Lucent spun off much of Bell Labs in Agere Technologies, and slimmed down what remained significantly.[]
  2. Bell Labs was the birthplace of the original transistor.[]
  3. One recurring theme is that Schön rarely kept his original data, usually keeping only his analysis in the forms of graphs, etc. This is most likely because original data never existed.[]
  4. Lydia Sohn of Princeton and Paul McEuen of Cornell, to be specific[]
  5. His Ph.D. thesis, though thoroughly unimpressive, did not contain evidence of fraud; the University of Konstanz revoked his doctorate anyway.[]
  6. The intelligence required to be a successful scientist is, I posit, an amoral quality.[]
  7. I think this is a major shortcoming from the book, especially from a knowledgeable science journalist who should know better.[]
  8. If you don’t know, there is no such word: the verb is “to orient”[]
§4594 · October 19, 2009 · Tags: , , , , , ·

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