Friday, May 29, 2009


When Christiane Riedinger arrived at Somerville College she heard everyone talking about Pogo. “He scared a rich donor today” or “I haven’t seen him, he must be hiding today.” Never meeting this strange Pogo, she eventually concluded that he must be the college ghost. Being that many buildings and traditions at Oxford are hundreds of years old, ghost tales abound (See here for example).

Actually, Pogo is the college cat – a beautiful all-black cat – suggestive of a ghost, perhaps, but a bit cuter. He was adopted many years ago by the principal of the college, Dame Fiona Caldicott, and he is more than just the mascot of the college, he borders on an obsession. There seems to be constant chatter about his whereabouts and his recent activities.

Admittedly, Pogo is a bit of a personality problem. Being a cat, he seems plenty happy to ignore all the people around him. Most of the time, he is remarkably uninterested in the hundreds of students going this way or that. Now and then he does seem to enjoy being pet, as most cats do. But when he tires of being nice, he turns quickly and brings out the claws to express his displeasure. Despite his occasional hostilities, he is a treasured icon of Somerville these days. [ There are, however, some (perhaps apocryphal) stories about how he likes to jump out of trees and land on the heads of important persons when they happen to be visiting the college. ]

A few weeks ago, Pogo got into a bit of a brawl with another cat and he ended up needing some stitches. He was hurt badly enough that he had to stay “home” at the principal’s residence for a week or so. You could practically feel the worry going around the college as everyone waited anxiously for him to heal. On the day he returned, there was a huge buzz going around “Pogo’s back!”.

In about 15 months, our principal will be retiring. She is a good principal, and we will be very sad to lose her. Hopefully her replacement will be equally good. More importantly, hopefully her replacement will bring a cat. Or maybe, just maybe, we can work out a joint custody arrangement with Dame Fi.

Thanks to Isabel Schlinzig for providing the nice photo above. I tried many times to get a good photo of Pogo, but did not manage to do so.
Sunday, May 24, 2009

Does bacon really cure a hangover?

The X5 bus goes from Oxford to Cambridge in just a bit over three hours. The only other public transport option involves taking a train to London, the tube across London, then the train again, which is about 2 and a half hours if you don’t screw up any of the connections, as I have done in the past. Considering that the train stations in both Oxford and Cambridge are a bit outside of town, and the train is much more expensive, it might seem like the X5 is a pretty good choice. However, the X5 has the reputation for being a truly miserable experience. Not because it stops at every podunk town along the way (most not listed on the schedule) but because it takes a route that goes around a dizzying number of traffic circles. By the end of the three hour tour, I was told that, even those with a strong stomach would be ill from the experience.

This week, I made a short visit to Cambridge to work with my friends Nigel Cooper and Ady Stern who was visiting from the Weizmann (in the next few days he will visit Oxford). Having never experienced the X5, I thought I would try it out… and maybe, having three uninterrupted hours, I would be able to get some work done along the way. I mean, how sickening could a bus ride actually be? We’re not talking about some crazy chaotic amusement park ride like the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Well, the rumors had at least a bit of truth to them. While the bus was generally comfortable, I quickly discovered that trying to read anything while going around traffic circle after traffic circle was a fast road to nausea– so I opted to try to sleep instead. This was a pretty good choice, and I made it to Cambridge feeling only slightly dizzy.

The visit to Cambridge was productive, although the three of us spend at least one entire afternoon working out a theory for something related to an experiment (related to this) –which the experimentalist then managed to shoot down in about five seconds. Good ideas that just happen to be wrong are rather common.

Friday night we went to high-table dinner at Pembroke college (See my previous post about high table at Pembroke). The master of Pembroke, Sir Richard Dearlove, used to be “C” the head of MI6 the British Secret Intelligence service. I met him once at a high table dinner at Pembroke a few years ago. Unfortunately, he was not present at this particular dinner, which meant that dinner was presided by the senior fellow present – which surprisingly enough was my friend Nigel. This means that he was required to say the Latin grace. Although he admitted that he did study Latin in grammar school, and was even good at it once upon a time, he opted for the short version (i.e., two latin words before dinner, and two latin words after).

The dinner (including dessert in the parlor) included no less than six courses of wines. The pre-dinner White, and the post-dinner Reisling and Port were all excellent (I was not so into the Claret, but I had a few glasses of that too just for good measure). The quality of the wine, and good conversation, encouraged me to overindulge just a bit. Around 1am, I finally took a cab “home” to the nice B+B where I was staying, and I woke up rather hungover (Yes, I confess, I am a lightweight).

Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered recently reading a headline in the Telegraph “Bacon Sandwich Really Does Cure a Hangover” (you can find the article here), so I asked the nice woman at the B+B if she could come up just such a cure for my breakfast. She pleasantly obliged, I choked the stuff down, and went off to catch the X5.

The next three hours were complete misery. What was a bit dizzying under normal conditions was sickening when hungover – and was probably made far worse by the ridiculous idea of curing my hangover with a bacon sandwich; I had cold sweats through the entire trip.

I did make it home without losing breakfast, but I was awful wobbly walking to my house from the bus station and then needed to nap the entire afternoon to recover.

Lessons learned from this trip include: Do not get your medical advice from the telegraph, Do not take the X5, and don’t drink the Claret.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fraud 2 (Electric Boogaloo)

This is an update to my post from a few days ago about the Henrick Schön scientific fraud case. Amazon shipped me a copy of Eugenie Reich’s new book about Schön, and I plowed through it in a few hours.

First, for the non-scientists reading my blog: Ms. Reich does a nice job describing the science (or lack thereof) for non-specialists, and she describes the “drama” of the narrative reasonably well. Is this book still worth reading if you have little or no interest in nanoscience, Bell Labs, or the characters who appear in the book? I’m not sure. It ain’t Truman Capote. But it is still a reasonably compelling and well written read. [If any nonscientists (or even scientists who are very far from this field) do decide to read it I’d be extremely interested to hear what you think about it - drop me a comment in the comment section, or send me email.]

Now for the detailed discussion: I have so much to say about this, that I think I am going to have to break it into several sections to be posted over the next few days or even weeks.

Part 1: Overall Review

Overall, I think Ms. Reich did a decent job capturing the line of events and the issues that were raised. The vast majority of what she writes agrees with my memory of the events. Getting most of the details right is no small feat and I think she should be commended for doing so much research. (Fears expressed in the comments section of my earlier blog entry turned out to be ill-founded). There were, however, a few places in the book where I thought some key facts were slightly different from what she claimed (I’ll discuss a few of these in a longer and more boring post). For those keeping track, I do appear in the book in several places but very tangentially. (details of my cameos in yet another longer and more boring post).

The book has many footnotes to original sources, but a more complete job of sourcing statements of facts would have been better. It is impossible to find out how she concludes certain things about the timeline of events and who said or thought what when. Without such detailed sourcing it is hard to judge the reliability of her (possibly contentious) statements.

Since so much of the book is based on interviews, Ms. Reich had to piece together a coherent timeline from a Rashamon-like set of (possibly conflicting) stories. In quite a number of places it was clear to me “Oh yes, this must be from an interview with X because X would tell the story like this.” But had she asked Y, she would have heard something different. As I said in my previous post, there is a whole lot of revisionist history out there. There are several places where I thought to myself as I read “that person is telling a rather selective and biased history!” And one or two places where I thought “that person is just lying.” But overall I think Ms. Reich tries to tell the story from enough perspectives that some (but not all) of these biases get evened out, so overall the narrative ends up being not too far off.

As for her placing “blame” for the fraud: Obviously most of the blame lies with Schön himself. But rightly, she does not belabor this point, as it is clear by this time that the guy had some screws missing. Considering how heavily she could have hit, except for one or two places, I think she is pretty gentle on Schön’s co-authors. However, I think she is quite harsh on Schön’s management chain: Isaacs, Rogers, Capasso, Murray. Although hard to tell, it appears that most of these managers did not grant any interviews and therefore did not have a chance to defend themselves or tell their sides of the story. (See above comment on biases evening out). In many cases where management looks bad, I am certain they would have been able to effectively counter some of the negative things that were said (or implied) against them. By interviewing almost exclusively the “footsoldier” members of technical staff (was I the only manager who was interviewed?), there was a fair amount of perspective that was lost. I hope to post another blog entry on defending the Bell management – perhaps not in every instance, but in many.

Finally, I felt the book was lacking in giving any sort of conclusion or interpretation of how these problems might be avoided in the future: should there be changes to the system, and if not, why not. I would have liked a bit more discussion of this sort. My opinion is that things should more or less not be changed. Scientists have to trust each other. The cost of not trusting is that science will run much slower, we will all be much less productive, and continual mutual suspicion will make us all miserable too. When a scientist stands up and says “My measurement was X” or “I calculated Y”, it is a waste of everyone’s time to spend hours thinking about “well, maybe they are intentionally trying to fool me.” Yes, once in a long while a person will come along and take advantage of a trusting system. Unfortunate as that is, it is the price I think we should be willing to pay to allow the system to run more smoothly in 99.9% of the situations.

More sometime soon…

Oh, and if anyone is wondering why the title is “Electric Boogaloo”, let’s just say that Americans of my generation like to insert “Electric Boogaloo” after the number 2. ( See here for analysis of phrasal patterns "X_2 Electric Boogaloo")
Thursday, May 14, 2009

What I Have In Common With Lindsay Lohan

I didn't star in "Mean Girls", I've never been on Maxim's list of the 100 sexiest women in the world. I've never been to rehab, and I've never been arrested for drunk driving. But...

Late one evening several years ago, I returned home to my apartment in Hoboken, and realized suddenly that I was supposed to catch a flight to Santa Barbara (Station Q) early the next morning. I packed quickly and flopped into bed, hoping to catch a few hours of sleep before my alarm went off.

Unfortunately, downstairs, (and unbeknownst to me at the time), the basement of my building was being burglarized. Some workmen, earlier in the day had (probably intentionally), left a back door unlocked. Fortunately, the woman who lived on the first floor heard something and called the police. The men in blue showed up quickly and chased the burglar up a few flights of stairs. Somehow the burglar gave the police the slip and left the police puzzled. "Perhaps he went into one of the apartments in the building", they must have thought... so they tried all the doors. Sure enough.. my door was open. Since I had gotten home late, I had actually forgotten to lock my door. The police invited themselves in, flashlights on, guns drawn.

"Hoboken Police! Who's in here!".

(If I were a bad guy with a gun, these cops were toast -- but in fact, i was just a regular sleeping guy.... actually, if i were a bad guy, maybe i would have locked the door behind me so the police couldn't get in... but then again, maybe bad guys are all stupid).

I think if I had been more awake I would have been rather startled by police with flashlights and guns in my apartment, but I was so asleep that I didn't even know what to think. I got out of bed (mostly undressed) and stumbled out of the bedroom

"Who are you?!"

they demanded.

"I live here." I said. "What's going on?".

I couldn't see anything at all. They kept shining the flashlight on me... then around the apartment. Then on me again.

"Do you have any identification?".

I always kept my passport in my desk drawer... which I happened to be standing next to... so I got it out, and handed it to the officer. He inspected it closely then said....

"This place looks ransacked! have you been burglarized?"

... I looked around and said

"No officer, my place usually looks like this."

Alas, it was a constant battle to keep my Hoboken apartment from turning into a pigsty -- a battle that, as my friends know well, I frequently lost.

(Now that I have moved to Oxford, I'm actually doing much better keeping clean... [particularly this week being that my parents are visiting]... probably I'm cleaner because I have much more space... and much less junk).

The police asked me if I was certain that I hadn't been burglarized. I said again, that the mess was my natural habitat. The officers looked around the apartment some more to see if anyone was hiding under the mess (no one was). They explained that they were chasing a burglar (who by this time, I'm sure, was long gone), they walked out and said "Remember to lock your door!"

So what does Lindsay Lohan have in common with me?

According to this news report several days ago, the police arrived at Lindsay Lohan's apartment and discovered an enormous mess:
the mess inside the starlet's home prompted officers to ask, "Is it normally like this, or did the intruders do it?"
Apparently, there was no intruder --- the mess was her natural habitat.

Who knew that Lindsay and I were so similar? I wonder what she thinks about the relative merits of variational trial wavefunctions versus perturbative expansions.

PS: Truth in advertising: I'm not sure the police had their guns drawn in my apartment. This is sort of how I remember it, but if pressed, I'm not certain about this part of the story.
Sunday, May 10, 2009


When I travel to conferences and universities around the world, when I mention that I used to be at Bell labs, inevitably someone wants to talk about Jan Hendrik Schön. Schön was one of the largest scientific frauds in history – and he was in the office two doors down from me for several years.

Over the span of several years, Schön published about one scientific paper per month in the world’s top two scientific journals –Science and Nature. He was the young star – everything he touched turned to gold. At age 32 he already had an offer to be the director of a Max Planck institute in Germany – which is about the biggest job any scientist in Germany could ever hope to get.

One morning in 2002, I was sitting in my office and my boss’s boss, Cherry Murray, called me on the phone. This was unusual - she had a lot of responsibilities at the time and she rarely called randomly. She sounded worried “Could you come down to my office right now?”. It sounded pretty serious, but I had no idea what it was about. At the time, Bell Labs was downsizing – maybe there was another cut?

When I arrived in her office, the rest of the management team of the Physical Sciences research lab was sitting around a large table in Cherry’s office. Cherry started the meeting “We have a serious problem.” She then explained that over the last two days, the Schön fraud had come to light. It turned out that his huge body of scientific work was all fiction.

There had certainly been some claims that one or the other of his papers were scientifically questionable for one reason or another. Discussions frequently went along the lines of “this paper doesn’t make sense – probably he is measuring X when he thinks he is measuring Y”. This kind of error in scientific reasoning is common, and given the large number of papers he was publishing, it was not surprising that some of his work did not quite have all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed yet. But these were honest scientific discussions – there are lots of papers that turn out to be wrong in the end that do not constitute fraud.

There had also been one serious internal accusation at Bell that some of his data had been dishonestly manipulated. Schön cooperated with this investigation and was actually exonerated from wrongdoing. Much later it turned out that he was exonerated because he was a very clever liar and managed to come up with a better lie to cover up the first. (No one doubts that he was actually quite brilliant in a fiendish way). But finally, enough data had accumulated that it was clear that he had just been making things up all along.

After Schön’s fraud was discovered, the rest was damage control. A blue ribbon panel was appointed to investigate what happened in great detail (the full report is available online here). Schön was eventually fired and Bell ended up with a bit of a black eye. The truth, however, is that in the 10+ years that I was at Bell, while this was certainly a memorable black eye, it was far from the worst thing that happened to us. In fact, considering all the downsizings, layoffs, and restructuring we went through over those years, the Schön fiasco, while embarrassing, was barely a blip.

Like any newsworthy event, the Schön fiasco certainly generated a lot of opinions. And inevitably, there will be some loudmouths making stupid comments on the subject – some of them in public places like the New York Times (You can google for yourself, I’m not going to embarrass these people by linking to the relevant articles). Since the fiasco, I have also heard a lot of stupid comments from other scientists about the Schön affair. Many of these comments were from people who really did not know much about what actually happened – and some from people who thought they knew what was going on, but really didn’t. I’ve also heard a fair amount of revisionist history around the community. Certain people have also apparently taken great pleasure in saying “this would not have happened if..” , or “we knew all along..”, or “this happened because..”. Which in almost every case, I disagree with. There was also this rather absurd pseudo-documentary by the BBC which tried to connect Schön to grey goo that is going to take over the world.

It is certainly worth asking, as a community, “why did this happen and how do we prevent it from happening again”. But I am certain there is no simple single answer to why - it was a combination of many factors – a perfect storm of conditions that allowed such mistakes to go undetected. The blame lies everywhere - his collaborators, his managers, the journals, the downsizing at Bell, how certain types of experiments are not easily reproduced, how many scientists can be gullible, how the community has a bit of a lemming mentality, how the scientific community depends on trust, and so forth. I am certain that our community could very easily be duped by another Schön. As in that case, eventually fraud would be discovered, but it could take quite some time. In fact, had Schön not been so brazen in his fraud, he could easily have kept it going for many more years before being discovered. Most scientists just don’t want to work in a world where they cannot trust their colleagues, so we assume that most people are not pathological liars, and we accept the fact that once in a long time a Schön will come along and fool everyone – at least for a while.

The reason I am telling this story again is because this month a new book by Eugenie Reich is being released that describes the details of the Schoen fiasco and how it happened. A brief article appears this month in Physics world, which you can find here. I was interviewed by Ms. Reich last year for this book (with the permission of Bell) and I was also quoted in the Physics world article. I hope that this book will be a reasonably accurate and level-headed portrayal of what took place without too much hype and without trying to create villains out of people who were at least trying to be honest. Schön was obviously not being honest, but most of the others were trying.

I intend to order this book from Amazon and I’ll report back what I think (not sure when I will get around to reading it though).

PS: Considering that I was only two doors down from him, I was surprisingly decoupled from most of the events of this story. I was never Schön’s manager, and I had only a few scientific discussions with him. I did assign one unlucky student a summer project about thinking about some of his “puzzling” data, but we never figured much out (and I think she ended up rather frustrated by it – I’m not sure where she is now). I was also involved in the earlier internal investigation that I mentioned above. As with much of my job for those years at Bell mainly I was there to keep the peace and duck when things got too rough.
Friday, May 8, 2009


I know I’m being watched.

I know there are internet lurkers out there who read this blog, but leave no sign that they have been here. (Yes, I know they are reading this now too). That’s OK though. The whole idea of a blog is to be read, so I am happy to have the lurkers watching me.

But if you want to come out of the shadows and confess that you have been reading this blog, please feel free -- I won't bite. You can leave a comment in the comment section, or you can send me email (my oxford email address is posted in the oxford physics department – just google steve simon oxford).

On the other hand, I understand that some readers may want to stay anonymous. You can also leave comments in the comment section under assumed names, like the recent postings from T and L and Anonymous (I think I know who T is, I have no idea who L is or who Anonymous is).

And some people like to just drop hints that they have been reading my blog. An example of this occurred last week, the day after I put up my post “Rubbish Collections” . In this post I complained that my students did not prepare for their exams. Anyway, on the morning after this posting I was walking to work and I saw one of my students going the other way. Trying to be friendly I said, “Hey, how’s it going?” and I got a one word answer “Rubbish!”

It could be a coincidence I suppose. Probably not though. Probably he has been reading my blog. So if you are reading this now --- welcome aboard -- NOW GO BACK TO STUDYING FOR YOUR EXAMS! :-)

PS: Congratulations to my collaborator, Mara Baraban, who just became a mother.
Thursday, May 7, 2009

Leiden EasyMeeting

This week I slipped off to the Netherlands for the yearly meeting of the UK/Netherlands quantum matter community. Held in Leiden, just a quick train ride from Amsterdam Schiphol airport, and named easyMeeting (for reasons that are still not clear to me) the two-day meeting was supposed to put the two analogous communities in the UK and the Netherlands in better contact with each other.

Many of the talks were interesting (more on these below). The Lorentz center where it was held is extremely well organized. The Hotel was fine, and the conference dinner was excellent – including a fair amount of wine and a dangerous Dutch concoction known as jenever (which lives somewhere between vodka and gin). Jan Zaanen seemed to be encouraging everyone to pop across the street to the coffee shop where they have the cheapest marijuana in the city. (I don’t think anyone partook… physicists are a pretty straight-laced bunch).

[Physics gossip: After a few glasses of wine, people always start gabbing. Among other key pieces of info I extracted was to find out who is being considered for the Lucasian chair at Cambridge – the professorship that Stephen Hawking currently holds (he is retiring this year). This position has also been held by Isaac Newton, and Dirac, among others. I probably should not post the information publicly, but if you are curious and want to engage in rumor mongering, feel free to give me a call and I’ll spill.]

A few of the things I really liked from this meeting:

The most interesting talk to me was given by Darius Sadri on the topic of AdS/CFT – that stands for Anti-de-Sitter/Conformal Field Theory. This is a technique invented by the string-theory community that draws a connection between quantum physics of scale invariant systems in d+1 dimensions and classical gravitation in d+2 dimensions. The idea has been around for about a decade, but only very recently has it found applications in the condensed matter physics community where it can be used to describe certain quantum phase transitions (which are inherently scale invariant). This mapping gives a way to understand certain “nonperturbative” systems that would be completely intractable otherwise. I confess, however, that I do not understand much about the details of the technique at this point. It seems that many of the mappings are imprecise at this point, and the only cases that have really been worked out in depth are not of interest to condensed matter physics (the canonical case being large N supersymmetric N=4 gauge theory [The two N’s in this sentence are different variables, sorry about that]). But the idea of applying this technique to “real” condensed matter systems seems to be rapidly gaining steam in the string theory community and in the condensed matter theory (CMT) community as well. See also this posting by Motl on how this field is developing. Next month there is going to be a short workshop at KITP on AdS/CMT – that’s a pun, for those keeping track. I’m told that it is going to be heavily attended by string theorists, but they are having a hard time getting CM theorists to show up.

Other interesting talks from this meeting:

Mark Golden (a Brit transplanted to UvA – university von Amsterdam, not Virginia) gave a very nice talk about various ARPES-type scattering experiments on the pnictides (I blogged about pnictides earlier here).

Johnathan Keeling from Cambridge gave a nice discussion of condensation of microcavity polaritons – a field that I’ve been following tangentially for some time, but I’ve never actually worked in the field (although I had various forays into the related field of exciton physics, see here and a series of papers thereafter).

Nigel Hussey from Bristol gave a nice discussion of transport experiments in the cuprate high temperature superconductors (it is amazing that after 20 years now, there is still interesting new data).

My old friend Andrew Green, now at St. Andrews, gave a very nice discussion of some progress on quantum criticality in various magnetic systems.

Kareljan Schoutens and I both gave talks on topological phases of matter, although from very different perspectives.

There were a bunch of other good talks too, but these were the ones that stood out in my mind. These, and the jenever.

PS: This blog entry was posted entirely from the Heathrow-Oxford bus. How cool is that?
Sunday, May 3, 2009

J. R. R. Tolkien

No, I have not discovered hobbits in my basement. I discovered this.

If you are a complete geek like me, and you thought the three Lord of the Rings movies were the best things ever filmed, you are going to love this independently made 40 minute film extending the Jackson trilogy.

What is truly amazing is that they made the whole movie on a budget of less than 10,000$. Even more amazing --- it is actually a pretty darn good short film. Move over Peter Jackson.

PS: Hat Tip to Gerit Quealy for pointing this out to me.

PPS: Wouldn't seem right to have a LOTR post without mentioning that Tolkien was an Oxford Professor.
Saturday, May 2, 2009


The first of May around here is a bit of an event. The holiday, known as May Morning, is described in some detail here. In short, at 6 am, the famous boy’s choir of Magdalen college sings in the bell tower of Magdalen to welcome in the spring. Some of the students stay up all night celebrating before going to listen to the choir, then there is a bit of dancing in the streets, they all have breakfast, and then everyone collapses. Others just wake up early to hear the choir.

Part of the tradition is that students try to jump off the Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell. Unfortunately, when the River is shallow this has resulted in a number of broken bones. So recently the police have closed the bridge on May Morning.

I probably should have woken up early to see the interesting events, but unfortunately, I had been out late the night before preparing to give the first Theoretical Physics Seminar of the spring (which was part of my official introduction to the theoretical physics sub-department – but was basically the same chalkboard presentation as here which I mentioned in an earlier post). The idea of waking up at 5am did not appeal, and I certainly did not want to be exhausted while trying to give a seminar. Maybe next year.

Nonetheless, I could not escape the coming of spring. When I came home on this sunny Friday afternoon, I discovered that flowers had sprung up in my backyard! Here are some of the pictures.

Since I don't really intend to spend much time or effort tending my garden, I suspect this is going to be the only year that they look so nice. Next year, I expect to have pretty flowers called weeds.

One of my friends from Bell recommended that if I really didn't want to deal with a garden, I could just sprinkle the whole area with Roundup , a powerful herbicide that will pretty much kill anything. Of course i'd love to keep the flowers... Hmmm.. I guess this is how people get snookered into spending long hours tending their gardens.