Big trouble in the world of “Big Physics”

Six months ago, Jan Hendrik Sch

Topics: Science, Physics,

Big trouble in the world of "Big Physics"

In February 2000, a promising young physicist named Jan Hendrik Schön published some startling experimental results. Schön and his partners had started with molecules that don’t ordinarily conduct electricity, and claimed they had succeeded in making them behave like semiconductors, the circuits that make computers work. The researchers reported their findings in Science, one of the flagship scientific journals.

The data created an immediate stir. Schön, who works at Lucent Technologies’ prestigious Bell Labs, followed that paper up with another, and then another. In his world of “publish or perish,” he became a virtual writing machine, issuing one article after another. His group reported that they could make other nonconductors into semiconductors, lasers and light-absorbing devices. These claims were revolutionary. Their implications for electronics and other fields were enormous, holding the promise that computing circuitry might one day shrink to unimaginably small size. In the words of one Princeton professor, Schön had “defeated chemistry.” He had become a modern alchemist, apparently conducting electricity where it had never gone before.

In a field where publishing two or three articles a year makes you productive, Schön started issuing reports in bunches. He was the lead author on dozens of articles — more than 90 in about three years, most of them appearing in the industry-leading journals. In 2001, he received an award for scientific “Breakthrough of the Year,” but most scientists saw this recognition as only the beginning.

“I saw these results being presented to a German audience,” says James Heath of UCLA, “and they knock on the chairs instead of clapping. It was incredible — they got a ‘standing knocking.’ I thought, These guys are going to Stockholm.” Less than five years after finishing graduate school, Jan Hendrik Schön was in contention for the Nobel prize.

Then the wunderkind fell to earth. In April, a small group of researchers at Bell Labs contacted Princeton physics professor Lydia Sohn and whispered that all was not right with Schön’s data. Sohn recalls that she and Cornell University’s Paul McEuen stayed up late one night and found some disturbing coincidences in Schön’s results: The same graphs were being used to illustrate the outcomes of completely different experiments. “You would expect differences,” she said, “but the figures were identical. It was a smoking gun.”

Once tipped off, McEuen started looking closely at a range of Schön’s work, enlarging the graphs and playing a game of mix-and-match. He found many duplicate graphs in different papers on different subjects. Schön was apparently using the same sets of pictures to tell lots of different stories.

In May, McEuen and Sohn formally alerted the editors of Science and Nature — where Schön and his team had published numerous articles — of the discrepancies. McEuen and Sohn also informed Schön; his supervisor and coauthor, Bertram Batlogg; and Bell Labs management that they were blowing the whistle. Schön immediately insisted that his experiments were fine, and that the duplicated figures were a simple clerical error for which he now offered substitutes. To Nature he declared he was “confident” of his results. To Science he said, “I haven’t done anything wrong.” Batlogg mostly said nothing at all. A scandal had broken out in the world of physics.

Lucent Technologies, which runs Bell Labs, responded swiftly. Cherry Murray, head of physical science research, acted with other Bell Labs officials and appointed an independent committee to look into the matter. The panel was made up primarily of university physics professors, led by Malcolm Beasley of Stanford. Their mandate, according to Beasley, is to get the facts and “find out whether scientific misconduct has occurred.” The results of the investigation could be released as soon as this week.

“Big Physics” is a small world. Very few people can understand, let alone judge, what experimental physicists do. They work in close professional communities of specialists and subspecialists, conducting expensive experiments and publishing papers with names like “Gate-induced Superconductivity in a Solution-Processed Organic Polymer Film.”

But physics is also a field in which millions of taxpayer dollars are spent every year. Now physics has an accountability problem and the only possible auditors are other physicists. As the field reels from what may be the biggest fraud in its history, scientists across the world are alarmed: Bad science can cost lives — think of the untested O-rings on the space shuttle Challenger that froze stiff and caused the ship’s tragic explosion. But what about phony science?

Jan Hendrik Schön joined Bell Labs in 1998, just before finishing his Ph.D. in Konstanz, Germany. His international move was typical; the physics community is a far-flung network within which virtually all practicing researchers have connections to specialists in other countries.

But if physics is global, the United States is its financial center. There are more scientists doing expensive experiments in the U.S. than in any other country. Most work at universities as professors, but walking in step with faculty members, attending the same conferences and publishing in the same journals are corporate-funded researchers at places like Xerox, IBM and Bell Labs.

Like university departments, science labs operated by giant corporations depend on income from the larger entity (the university maintains its departments, while the corporation maintains its lab). Both also receive government money, often to conduct joint ventures. Together, the schools and the corporations make up one large academic community.

Bell Labs, formerly operated by AT&T, is the most famous of all corporate science centers. In 77 years of existence, the Labs have hired top-flight scientists from universities and essentially turned them loose to look into whatever they’ve wanted, with the corporation footing the bill. If their discoveries had practical use, that was great. Otherwise, the science was, like much university-based research, a contribution to common knowledge.

Researchers at Bell Labs were like professors without teaching and other administrative responsibilities. Given up-to-date equipment, funding and generous salaries, these scientists were pointed in the direction of the unknown and encouraged to work together to explore it.

The results of this policy have been impressive: Bell Labs scientists have won numerous Nobel prizes and other awards. But since AT&T decided in 1996 to split into software and hardware companies — with the latter, Lucent Technologies, retaining Bell Labs — the facility has fallen upon hard times. The Schön affair is a black eye on an already battered company. Lucent lost a staggering $8 billion last quarter, and laid off thousands of employees.

Schön himself was set to leave Bell Labs, to become a director at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, but the job offer was withdrawn when the scandal broke. When the news of the duplicated graphs first became public, Schön defended himself vigorously. Now he’s in silent limbo, waiting for the Beasley panel to issue its findings. He did not respond to a request for an interview for this article.

The duplicated graphs are not the only smoking gun. There’s also the serious problem that despite numerous attempts, no other physicist has repeated Schön’s results. If no one else can repeat the results of an experiment, both experiment and experimenter come under suspicion. “It is part of the process of science,” says investigative committee head Beasley, “that things get winnowed out because they don’t work.”

Physicist Art Ramirez of Los Alamos National Laboratory once told Science that Schön had “magic hands.” Now, says Ramirez, “I’m less sure. I’m getting less comfortable” with Schön’s work. Schön himself appears to have lost his magic touch. He told Science in the wake of the controversy that he was “trying as hard as [I] can” to duplicate his own results, but somehow the experiments don’t work for him anymore.

They haven’t been working for other scientists, either. Physicists around the country and the world have spent tens of millions of dollars — including funding from the U.S. Department of Energy — trying to reproduce Schön’s key results. Taxpayers have footed the bill for two years’ worth of fruitless and expensive efforts. “It seemed so plausible,” sighs Arthur Hebard of the University of Florida. “Almost too good to be true.” Now Hebard wonders, “What’s the trick?”

There are an estimated 100 laboratory groups working on Schön’s results in the United States and around the world. For graduate students basing their Ph.D. research on Schön’s experiments, their education is at stake. Postdoctoral fellows worry about their prospects for future employment. Some junior professors have tied their bids for tenure to experiments based on Schön’s findings. Their professional livelihoods are literally at risk. If the results are fake, how can these people get their careers back? Invoking recent headlines, UCLA’s Heath commented that “This is like the opposite of losing your retirement.” Asked one nervous faculty member, “Can we get a class action suit together?”

When Martin Fleischmann and B. Stanley Pons suddenly walked out of the University of Utah chemistry department in 1989 claiming that they had solved our energy problems by producing a “cold fusion” reaction (the heat of such reactions has reserved them for hydrogen bombs), scientists showed by straightforward calculation that the experiment couldn’t work. Not surprisingly, no one could repeat the results the two claimed. Though the matter received a lot of media coverage, it was a case of routine exposure of a couple of unknowns.

Schön’s work has also never crossed the repeatability threshold. Skepticism about it was rising before the scandal broke. By the time his colleague McEuen helped find the duplications, says Cornell’s Dan Ralph, “We were having serious doubts about the science.” UCLA’s Heath described how when a Schön paper would come out, he would get excited, but after a while “I would begin worrying a little bit.” Sohn, who worked with McEuen to make the matter public, says, “The data were too clean. They were what you’d expect theoretically, not experimentally. People were getting frustrated because no one could reproduce the results, and it was hitting a crescendo.”

Many physicists now wonder about Schön’s incredible productivity. “I am guilty of extreme gullibility,” says Nobel laureate Philip Anderson. “I have to confess it. We should all have been suspicious of the data almost immediately.” Ramirez of Los Alamos says, “I find it hard to even read that many papers, much less write them.”

Why would Schön rush to publish dubious results if he knew others would attempt to repeat his experiments? Perhaps, says Heath, Schön was “innocent and naive,” like Utah’s Fleischmann and Pons. One physicist gave voice to a darker possibility: “If the results are fraudulent, Schön would have to have some kind of psychological problem.”

Like other academic fields, physics polices itself through a peer review system. When a physicist submits a paper for publication, the editor sends it out to be judged by specialists in the author’s field. These referees recommend publication (sometimes with revision) or rejection. The system is designed to weed out substandard work, and to improve promising submissions and make them publishable. It’s supposed to keep things honest.

Peer review also governs external funding. Experimental physicists need labs to work in, and the equipment in a typical condensed-matter physics lab costs about a million dollars. Further funds are required for upkeep, and scientists and their staff need salaries. Universities maintain a lot of the country’s physics labs and pay much of the cost out of tuition and endowment income, but an important part of any physics professor’s job is to look for additional funding. Corporations are one source, and in cases like Bell Labs, the parent corporation pays most of the researchers’ bills.

Perhaps the biggest single source of funding for scientific research is the taxpayer. The federal government dispenses about $20 billion a year to scientists and mathematicians through numerous outlets. The National Science Foundation is the most abundant source, awarding about $5 billion annually. The Department of Defense also supports many a physics lab, as do NASA and the Department of Energy. How does the government decide who gets the money? It invites physicists to Washington to read their colleagues’ grant applications and make the judgments. “There’s a certain amount of trust in the physicists,” said Jonathan Epstein, science advisor to New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Science and Energy Committee. The peer review system is the means by which that trust is maintained.

The Schön affair has besmirched the peer review process in physics as never before. Why didn’t the peer review system catch the discrepancies in his work? A referee in a new field doesn’t want to “be the bad guy on the block,” says Dutch physicist Teun Klapwijk, so he generally gives the author the benefit of the doubt. But physicists did become irritated after a while, says Klapwijk, “that Schön’s flurry of papers continued without increased detail, and with the same sloppiness and inconsistencies.”

Some critics hold the journals responsible. The editors of Science and Nature have stoutly defended their review process in interviews with the London Times Higher Education Supplement. Karl Ziemelis, one of Nature’s physical science editors, complained of scapegoating, while Donald Kennedy, who edits Science, asserted that “There is little journals can do about detecting scientific misconduct.”

Maybe not, responds Nobel prize-winning physicist Philip Anderson of Princeton, but the way that Science and Nature compete for cutting-edge work “compromised the review process in this instance.” These two industry-leading publications “decide for themselves what is good science — or good-selling science,” says Anderson (who is also a former Bell Labs director), and their market consciousness “encourages people to push into print with shoddy results.” Such urgency would presumably lead to hasty review practices. Klapwijk, a superconductivity specialist, said that he had raised objections to a Schön paper sent to him for review, but that it was published anyway.

Klapwijk points out that the duplicated figures were in separate papers that weren’t necessarily sent to the same people for vetting. But as one physicist admits, “It’s hard to criticize someone else’s productivity without sounding like you’re full of sour grapes.”

Another reason for the breakdown is the hypnotizing effect of reputation. When the names of eminent people and places appear on the top of submitted papers, says Florida physicist Hebard, “reviewers react almost unconsciously” to their prestige. “People discount reports from groups that aren’t well known,” adds University of Maryland physicist Richard Greene.

“Part of the reason the work was accepted,” says Greene, was because Schön’s coauthor and one-time supervisor Bertram Batlogg put his imprimatur (and that of Bell Labs) on it. Batlogg has been a respected superconductivity physicist for more than two decades.

Batlogg left Bell Labs for a job in Switzerland before he became a cause célèbre. He now stands accused of harboring, if not abetting, scientific fraud. In his only public pronouncement about the scandal, in a German magazine, Batlogg said, “If I’m a passenger in a car that drives through a red light, then it’s not my fault.”

Most other scientists feel very differently. “People don’t want to hear this. They want to hear a mea culpa. Batlogg allowed this to happen,” says Art Ramirez of Los Alamos. “Batlogg signed on,” Hebard says. “He’s a collaborator, not a casual passenger. He’s been benefitting all along, riding the public wave.” Adds Princeton’s Sohn, “If a young driver has a learner’s permit, then who’s responsible for him? Batlogg was the licensed driver, and Schön was the student driver.”

“If my student came to me with earth-shattering data, you wouldn’t be able to pry me out of the lab,” says Rice University’s Douglas Natelson. “I’d be in there turning the knobs myself.” Heath echoes this sentiment: “I’d sit down there to see how this is being done. I’d demand to see it several times.”

Siegfried Grossman, head of a German research consortium, told a German publication that Batlogg is simply making excuses. Coauthors, Grossman said, must take full responsibility for the contents of their publications. Sohn says flatly, “I am responsible for what my students publish. If my name is going to be on a paper, I want to make sure it’s right.”

Batlogg recruited Schön while Schön was still a graduate student. He brought Schön into his lab. He sponsored Schön’s experiments. And rather than formally withdraw any papers he might have considered suspicious, he gave many well-received talks at elite international conferences on the results. Wonders one American physicist, “What did Batlogg know and when did he know it? I don’t see how he can work as a scientist any longer.” Added Allen Goldman of the University of Minnesota, “Batlogg’s going to take his lumps on this one.”

What do we as a society expect from our scientists? We equate the scientific method with abstract inquiry, but as biologist Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out, you have to be looking for something in the first place — and your goal is bound to affect your search. Science, Gould suggested, involves a balancing act between objective methods and subjective goals.

There is one shining rule, though: no cheating. Science, like any academic field, demands scrupulous, rational honesty. “My goal may be to win a prize,” says Nobel laureate Horst Stormer, “but my duty is to report what I have observed in the most objective way that I can. I say this in the strongest terms. This is what I expect from my colleagues, from my graduate students, at all levels of the field.”

American intellectual culture hasn’t exactly been showcasing that sort of rectitude and responsibility lately. Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, two historians who recently admitted to plagiarism in their books, have seen their individual reputations suffer for their acts, and they’ve tainted their discipline at the same time. Now we may have to make room for another in the public stocks. Schön, his colleagues say, is also risking the reputation of an entire field.

Physicists everywhere are relying heavily on the Beasley committee to set things right. Some hope to polish tarnished reputations. Christian Kloc, for example, is a chemist on the Schön team whose job was to supply tiny crystals for the experiments. Kloc’s work appears to be unrelated to the disputed data, but as one physicist put it, “Who knows anymore?” But there is more at stake than the careers of individuals. If the accusations turn out to be true, says Cornell’s Dan Ralph, “This is the biggest fraud in the history of modern physics.”

McEuen, the man who helped to expose the problem, has confidence in the investigation. Beasley himself is more circumspect. Acknowledging that the physics community may be expecting more from his committee’s report than its mandate suggests, Beasley says only that, “At the end of the day, we need to demonstrate that we took this very seriously and that we did a good job.”

More immediately, Dan Ralph of Cornell remains concerned about the careers of younger physicists that may have been jeopardized, and by the unreliability the whole system now shows. “Checks and balances didn’t work the way they should have,” he said. As a result, “The fallout from this will hurt,” according to Hebard. Many fear that Bell Labs will not recover. Because Schön’s results are now suspect, Hebard and other scientists worry that funding for a highly promising area will now dry up. But Hebard sees the effect of the scandal extending beyond the matter of organic superconductivity. “We thought we were inviolate,” Hebard said. “Scientists are easy to fool because you believe what your colleagues tell you. I would hope that the public wouldn’t conflate this with Enron and WorldCom, but it is inflating the profit statement.”

And when the news reaches the nation’s high school physics classrooms? “Science is scientists,” said William Wallace, teacher and head of the science department at Washington’s Georgetown Day School. “It’s a human activity.” Still, Wallace concedes that “A little trust is chipped away every time something like this happens.” Pointing to the “heroes I had growing up” — like Richard Feynman, the maverick Nobel prize winner who inspired generations of physics students — Wallace notes that now “there’s an incredible amount of pressure on young and midcareer scientists. They always need to know where the next grant is coming from.” The result is “careerism,” not heroism or pursuit of the truth. And that leaves the teacher with a question: “In the end, if there isn’t respect for scientific truth, then what have you got?”

This story has been corrected.

Leonard Cassuto is an associate professor of English at Fordham University. His writing on academic politics has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Boston Globe.

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