Plastic Fantastic

Isaac Newton. Albert Einstein. Galileo. Marie Curie. These are all, of course, names of famous scientists that most people probably could conjure some factoid or two about. Jan Hendrick Schön? Well, maybe you haven’t heard of him, but less than 15 years ago, many people were associating his name with future greatness.

Imagine plastic, flexible computers that you could hold in your hand like your smart phone but you could also easily fold or roll up. Imagine molecular computers that could be twenty times smaller than current technology and still obtain the same performance.  Imagine a conductor that doesn’t even need an applied voltage to generate a current, which could enable frictionless transport at blazing fast speeds.

Schön imagined all of these things, and then he fabricated data to support all of these things, published the data, and fooled the entire scientific community. He was eventually found out, but his deceit impacted many scientists. Some were discouraged that they couldn’t replicate Schön’s results and left the field. Others lost valuable time pursuing the same technologies Schön purported to have discovered. He was caught though, thanks to a self-correcting system that discourages falsification. This system is no modern creation but was created over 350 years ago.

I’m sure there are plenty of scientists who don’t like writing. They became scientists (and not journalists) for a reason! But a large portion of being a scientist is communication, and if you don’t like writing, you can point fingers at Robert Boyle. In 1661, he wrote a book where he outlined how unreliable scientific information was disseminated. He compared scientists of the time to sailors, who would dock in the harbor and relay stories of mystical creatures and beautiful sirens of mysterious, fantastical distant lands. How would anyone know if the stories were true, unless they were documented, understood by other sailors, and could be explored by other boats? The same was true for scientific information. So, Boyle joined the Royal Society, which had formed a year prior, and attempted to demonstrate how important an elite, skeptical community was to prove or disprove the validity of scientific claims.

Boyle demonstrated his experiments in person, advocating for witnesses to observations. If large demonstrations were inconvenient, he said, then scientists should write detailed accounts of their experiments so that other scientists may replicate the observations. To put it succinctly, scientists should write to encourage reproducibility and further scientific progress. Vague claims and unclear writing are not often published in reputable journals, and so scientists publishing results are motivated to explain their methods so that their findings and integrity would not be put into question.

It was only five years after the foundation of the Royal Society when the first scientific journals began appearing. The journals became a way for scientists to declare, “I was here first!” when making a claim. They were also a means for scientists to determine if an idea or claim was original or not. Eventually, publication became synonymous with scientific obligation. It was a scientist’s duty to publish; otherwise, he was seen as an outcast and had no leg to stand on.

Two hundred years later, the journals Science and Nature were founded as a way to communicate scientific findings with broad impacts to a more general public. Now, not only was scientific writing keeping scientists honest and exposing fraudsters, but it was also providing a way to show the public that, “Look! I did something meaningful and exciting!” While scientific writing might be so tedious as to sometimes seem like a rage-inducing barrier, it is the best way to avoid duplicating other scientists’ work, discourage false scientific claims, and disseminate information to a wide audience.

This is exactly what happened in Schön’s case. As outlined in the book Plastic Fantastic, Schön had been hired at Bell Labs, where the first transistor had been created and the Nobel Prize was awarded for its discovery. He was working with semiconducting organic molecules, which are widely different from normal semiconductors like silicon, which is the most widely used semiconductor in electronics. Common organic molecules compose plastics, which we wouldn’t typically think to generate electricity, but a special subset of these materials do and have broad implications for new, flexible electronics that could have interesting, niche applications.

Feeling the pressures that come with working at a high-profile lab, Schön began fabricating data. First, he started omitting points on his graphs that he couldn’t explain or didn’t fit his model. Then, he would add an extra peak to his data to support a hypothesis. Eventually, his fabrication snowballed out of control, and he wasn’t even performing experiments. He was just plugging equations into Excel and calling the graphs his results. He started small, realized he could get away with it, and started making huge claims.

Schön garnered lots of attention for his work. At first, it was positive. He earned young scientist medals and multiple best presentation awards at conferences. Eventually though, some scientists noticed a few odd things about his data. First, it was too perfect. Whenever scientists collect data, there are almost always statistical fluctuations that can’t be controlled for, no matter how sophisticated the instrumentation. Second, no one else could produce results Schön had produced. After a few years, this starts to look suspicious to some. Finally, the most damning evidence against him came about when it was noticed that the noise in one of his graphs was identical to the noise in another graph of unrelated data. Noise, by definition, is random and would almost never be replicated. These combined circumstances led to Schön’s downfall.

The only reason that Schön was ever caught was because of the continuation of Boyle’s insistence that science should be communicated throughout the community. This is one of the beneficial aspects of scientists. It is self-policed. Without rigid rules for disseminating information, Schön may have been another 17th century huckster with a perpetual motion machine that was actually powered by the tiny old man stuffed under the cabinet. Instead, as Boyle desired, scientists are required to publish their methods. With vast claims, other scientists will jump on board, hoping to make their name in a new, exciting field. If the results are irreproducible and the methodology vague, the author may end up like Schön, now living in obscurity as a hermit with all awards – including his PhD – stripped away from him.

If you’re interested in this story, I would recommend the book Plastic Fantastic. It’s a great piece on scientific misconduct, how we fools ourselves, and how we can eventually “get things right”.

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