Letters

Readers respond to Leonard Cassuto's "Big Trouble in the World of 'Big Physics'" and Katharine Mieszkowski's "Hydrotopia."


Salon Staff
September 27, 2002 11:30PM (UTC)

[Read "Big Trouble in the World of 'Big Physics.'"]

The author of the article seems to think that the scientific-misconduct scandal he speaks of represents a failure of the peer-review system.

How can it be? The scientist was caught!

True, it took some time, but not every case of bogus results is easily found out. As a mathematician would say, there is a "distribution" of times until someone discovers that some result is bogus, ranging from immediately in the simplest cases ("D'oh! Forgot to turn the power on!") to months, even years, in the most complicated.

Advertisement:

Rather than a black eye for "big physics," I would say that scientists uncovering fraud in a very high profile field is a shining example of peer review and the scientific method at work. It's a good day, not a dark one.

Now, it's the ones that we have not yet caught that we must be concerned about. So let's get back to work ...

-- Marcello Pavan

As someone who investigated a case of scientific fraud for a former employer, I read with great interest your article on Jan Schön and the recent questions regarding his research. For the most part, your article is dead-on, including the issues regarding careers that become collateral damage as a result of fraudulent science.

It should be pointed out, however, that the recent scandal created by Schön's papers is proof that the scientific process does work. As is clear from this example, the community of scientists continually polices itself and corrects mistakes in the open literature as necessary. The seemingly long time to uncover the fraud can be compared to the time required to debate public policy in an open society: Perhaps it is not the most expedient process, but it is the best one we have to maintain rigorous quality standards while still allowing for the possibility of new and revolutionary ideas.

-- Dr. Kevin A. Delin

Advertisement:

Science is not Tinkerbell. It will not cease to exist just because John Q. Public isn't sure he believes the incomprehensible results of arcane research.

I feel this story distorts the role of public confidence in the day-to-day and year-to-year operations of the scientific community. Plenty of fabricated science is published every year. Most of it, really obscure stuff, is sufficiently inconsequential that it hardly matters whether it is real or fraudulent. No one is motivated to even try to reproduce it. Even if someone suspects that a publication is based on fabricated results, it is usually too much trouble to prove the crime.

The Jan Hendrik Schön fiasco is different. Schön, for whatever reason, felt compelled to fabricate results of significant interest. For this he was doomed. Other investigators had to try to reproduce his results. His fellow Lucent scientists gradually became suspicious of his impossible level of productivity. So he is in the process of being exposed and marginalized. The incident was unfortunate but hardly a threat to "science."

The relationship between science and the public is much like that of a sow to her suckling pigs. The piglets do not debate the credibility of the milk; they just suck. As long as scientists invent gadgets, drugs and lifestyles, the people will come and the people will pay.

Advertisement:

-- Jim Hershberger

Overall, I really enjoyed Mr. Cassuto's article on the scandal regarding Schön's work. I genuinely appreciate that Salon is covering news topics in the world of science and I hope that you continue to do so in the future.

However, I have to take issue with the description of the funding system that exists for university professors. The author seems to imply that most academic research is paid for by the universities through tuition and endowments. However, the situation is actually the opposite. Most academic research is paid for by external funding, usually through grants from federal agencies or from industry.

Advertisement:

Generally, in a modern academic research lab at a Ph.D.-granting institution, the only things paid for by the university are salaries, graduate student tuition, and the use of laboratory space. Most new professors do receive "start-up funds" -- money to equip their new labs and to provide the means to get their research programs started -- until they establish external funding. However, they are expected to pay the university back by the time they reach the point of tenure (5-10 years). This money comes from the "overhead" that the university charges the federal granting agencies. Typically, the university takes half or more of every grant earned by a professor.

The university does continue to pay a salary throughout a professor's career. However, professors are expected to teach classes, a full-time job itself, in exchange. In addition, this salary is usually paid for only nine months of the year; the professor is expected to obtain income for the summer from external sources. Finally, most professors pay the salaries of their graduate students and technicians from their external funding, as well. Professors that cannot raise adequate funding to do all of these things will be denied tenure or promotion.

It should also be noted that obtaining external funding is very difficult. A typical call for proposals from the National Science Foundation might fund only 10-15 percent of the applicants.

Advertisement:

I hope that you will be more careful in describing the academic funding system in the future. Academia is already being assaulted by critics that contend that it is a refuge for do-nothings that live off their students' tuition money. However, as you can see, the situation is exactly the opposite.

-- Michael Pullin

Reading the first few paragraphs of Cassuto's article on Jan Schön's data, I thought that when Cassuto described the investigation, he was going to write that it had been completed and that Schön's data had indeed been falsified. Instead, he wrote that the results of the investigation were expected to be released that week.

This article, frankly, is embarrassing. Cassuto writes as if Schön has already been found to have falsified the data. In the opening paragraph, for instance, he writes that Schön's only response to Science and Nature were vague summaries that his data was real and not forged. Contrary to what Cassuto and Salon's editors may think, this does not imply that Schön is guilty.

Advertisement:

There may also have been explanations that Cassuto was [not] aware of. Perhaps another explanation: Schön presented the evidence of his research to a committee where it was likely to be understood, rather than to an English professor freelancing about physics research.

Cassuto should have included the possibility that Schön's data was real, rather than imply a conclusion that the author seems sure of -- but doesn't want to explicitly state.

Also, if it is shown that Schön's data is real, I think it would be appropriate for another article explaining why, oh why oh why, the peer-review process could have proven an English professor wrong.

-- Sam Sachdeva

Advertisement:

[Read "Hydrotopia."]

I'm an advocate for biotechnology, and as such I have loathed Jeremy Rifkin since the mid-1980s. Although I am open to reasoned debate on the issues, Rifkin's arguments against biotechnology infuriate me because they are scientifically illiterate and use mushy homilies in an effort to gain the moral high ground. Rifkin's hydrogen panegyric suffers from the same rhetorical defects.

It's true that if you react hydrogen with oxygen, it forms water and gives off energy. However, there are no known sources of pure hydrogen on earth -- hydrogen is bonded to something else, like carbon (in the form of methane or other hydrocarbons) or oxygen (in the form of water). You'd have to spend as much energy to extract hydrogen from methane or water as you would get by reacting the hydrogen in a fuel cell. Think of it as Enron-style accounting: You're not producing energy; you're just moving energy from one account to another.

True, hydrogen would be a good way to store energy produced by windmills, photovoltaic cells or other renewables. However, the amount of energy we can get from renewables is still rather low (especially when environmentalists are protesting windmill projects in places like Nantucket).

Advertisement:

I welcome the development of hydrogen fuel cells and wish developers of renewables the best of luck in producing energy at costs comparable to that of coal, oil or nuclear power. However, much as Rifkin might wish otherwise, the problems that developers of renewables face are not imposed by the nefarious car companies or ExxonMobil, but are engineering challenges that can't be solved by legislation, regulation, buying organic foods, or wishing really hard.

-- Raymund Eich

Not once does the article mention the key distinction between fossil fuels and hydrogen: Fossil fuels are a source of energy. Hydrogen is just a carrier of energy.

The energy has to come from somewhere, and wind/solar/hydro/biofuels won't account for more than a percentage of the total energy budget with any level of investment.

Advertisement:

If we make hydrogen using oil/gas/coal/nuclear energy sources, how does that help the environment? Trick question: It doesn't. Yes, you might move the smog to where the hydrogen is generated (i.e., out of California), but that won't solve the greenhouse effect, or dependence on oil.

Which leads me to conclude that hydrogen is no substitute for investment in energy efficiency and conservation.

-- Dmitry Orlov

One flaw with the discussion of hydrogen fuel-cell technology is that little time is spent describing how hydrogen itself is created and how much energy that process requires.

Advertisement:

In your article, Mr. Rifkin says, "You generate electricity. You use that electricity to separate hydrogen from water, and there's your stored energy. Then, you put it in fuel cells whenever you want." However (and bear in mind I'm no fuel-cell expert, so perhaps I'm wrong here), it's been explained to me that to arrive at hydrogen fuel requires an investment of perhaps twice the energy you'll get back out of the fuel cell.

If that scenario is true, and fuel cells give back 50 percent of the energy required to fuel them, then they do not really represent a replacement for existing energy technologies, just good batteries. At the fueling stage some sort of consumable fuel (whether fossil fuel or some alternative) must be expended. Won't that mean more power plants, or at least a higher demand on existing ones? And by extension, how does that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?

I'd love answers to these questions. So far, however, it sounds too good to be true.

-- David Ingram

Hydrogen power is a wonderful concept. God knows with the Mideast crisis, the absurdity of Bush's plans to invade Iraq, and Saudi Arabia's even more absurd stranglehold on us, we need to find a substitute for oil yesterday!

However this article did not address the safety issue. Hydrogen is very combustible. It doesn't support combustion the way oxygen does, but it ignites quite happily. I keep getting visions of the Hindenberg disaster when I think of individual homes being able to exchange hydrogen back and forth. How do the developers expect to handle that?

Also, why would you want individual homes to do that when it's probably easier for mass transit hubs to do that? Wouldn't it seem more efficient and safer to limit hydrogen exchange -- at least in the urban areas -- to the bus and train depots? It would (presumably) lessen the risk of individual homes exchanging hydrogen. It would also encourage the use of mass transit. And using mass transit more would allow Americans to walk more, increasing exercise levels and decreasing obesity and related health problems.

Just a few thoughts!

-- Terri Heard

While I am in complete support of the quest for new energy sources to wean us from fossil fuels, we need to be very careful not to state, or even imply, that hydrogen is an energy source. It is not.

The problem is quite simple and fundamental, from high school chemistry: Hydrogen combines with oxygen to form water, which releases energy. But to obtain the hydrogen in the first place, you need to separate it from oxygen (like, for example, using electrolysis to extract hydrogen from water or gasoline). The catch is that it takes exactly as much energy to separate the hydrogen as you get back when you recombine it: Thus your net energy gain is exactly zero. (This is for the ideal case; in real life there will be some inefficiency in the mechanics, which will result in a net energy loss.) Unfortunately this is not merely some technological difficulty that we can eventually work out -- it's a fundamental law of thermodynamics.

This of course does not detract from the value of hydrogen fuel cells as energy storage devices, but we need to be careful not to be confused and mistakenly consider hydrogen an energy source. There is a huge difference. A rough analogy can be made with common batteries -- while they are fantastically useful and convenient, they still are not sources of energy.

While the article does mention that hydrogen "just needs to be extracted from a source like natural gas, gasoline or water," this statement is vastly underplayed, in addition to being buried amid other more prominent statements such as "Hydrogen is the next great power source" and "A hydrogen car would actually make its driver an energy producer," which are simply false.

Don't get me wrong -- I am a big fan of the hydrogen future and the use of fuel cells. But I also know that even when hydrogen cells are powering every car on the planet, we will still need to find a source of energy to power up the fuel cells in the first place, which may be a much tougher task.

-- Tobin Munsat


Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••


Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •