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.


Carissa Aoki said...

Wow, that's quite a story--I didn't follow it at the time it was actually happening. I'm weirdly fascinated by these cases--I always wonder why people commit fraud in fields like, say, science, when they could make lots more money by doing it in, say, financial services. It's understandable in the case of someone like the Korean scientist who faked his cloning results, because scientists in Korea are rock stars, so I assume the attractions are the usual ones having to do with high cultural status: fame, fortune, money, whatever. But in most other countries (where scientists are not rock stars), faking your results seems antithetical to why one gets into science in the first place.

I'm also a little confused in this case (partially because I don't know anything about physics) because it doesn't sound like he was actually an idiot. He obviously was smart enough to get hired. So was he really very smart (and probably capable of doing good work in this area WITHOUT fraud), but blinded by glory-seeking? Or was he really very smart, but not able to understand that it's okay if all your projects don't produce results? Or was he simply not smart enough to do honest work so had to lie to stay in the field?

Steve said...

Certainly a good question. The guy was very smart -- no question about it. He could talk physics with the best of them and it really sounded like he understood quite a bit of difficult stuff.

He pulled off his fraud so convincingly that it really seems to me that he must have actually half believed it himself (I read somewhere that the best liars half believe their lies -- otherwise they couldn't pull them off).

I think on some level perhaps there was a glitch in his brain and he didn't have a distinction between "I measured this and this is what I got" and "I tried to measure this, but this is what I think I should have got". I'm not sure he ever really admitted to himself that he had made it all up.

Or maybe he just found himself getting deeper and deeper into the lies. If he started by tweaking a bit of data here and a bit of data there -- then someone says "Oh, but if you measured X and got Y, then surely if you measure W you will get Z, or else something must be wrong" so then he had to fabricate Z as well.. And perhaps in this way lies piled on top of lies?

But this is only a guess. Maybe the book by Ms. Reich will provide some of the answers?

Doug Natelson said...

Hi Steve - I, too, was interviewed by Ms. Reich for the book, and I'm curious what the final spin on things is.

As for why he did this, I think it's pretty clear in hindsight that he has some psychological issues. There's no rational reason for him to have behaved as he did - if it was all about career advancement, he could have done 15% of his alleged research and still been a star.

Hindsight is always 20-20. Still, I find some of the most interesting lessons that I learned from the whole business to be related more to the sociology of science (and Bell Labs) than to anything else.

Steve said...

Hi Doug!

I'm actually a bit less optimistic about the quality of the book now than I was a few days ago when I posted this blog entry. What happened in between was that I happened across an article by Ms. Reich in New Scientist on a completely different subject -- and I was less than impressed. The article reported on some nice work by Moessner and Castlenovo and friends on "magnetic monopoles" in spin ice (you've probably heard talks on this). However, the article presents this work as if they have found the SAME magnetic monopole that people interested in fundamental particles have been looking for -- which is completely disingenuous. Spin ice is a monopole analog -- pretty cool physics for certain -- but the way the two ideas were blurred together was horrible.

I hope she does a better job with this book.

Doug Natelson said...

Hey - Get out of my brain! Seriously, I saw that New Scientist article, saw the byline, and had exactly the same reaction. I almost wrote a blog entry about this, but I don't think I have anything more interesting to say right now about the challenge of explaining complicated CM concepts (quasiparticles w/ weird properties) to a general audience.

Austen said...

In defense of that article...

1. There is a box on the first page highlighting the statement "These might not be the monopoles of physics lore"

2. The second paragraph on Page 3 that talks about Dirac strings as being common to both types of monopoles seems to be a fairly accurate reflection of what is said in the paper. As far as I can tell they have nothing whatever in common, as the Dirac string is a singularity in the vector potential, which is nowhere invoked in the spin ice work, whereas the string of inverted dipoles mentioned would apply equally to electric charges (no Dirac strings involved)

Steve said...

Hi Austen!

Perhaps the thing that irked me most was the cover of the magazine "Monopole Found at Last!" (I dont' have the magazine right in front of me, so I'm not positive I have the quote right, but it was something like this).

(1) Yeah, I noted the disclaimer box -- provided with little explanation. "These MIGHT not be the monopoles of physics lore" --- perhaps it should have read "These ARE not...". I mean, is there really any uncertainty in the matter? Then considering this, perhaps they should change the cover?

In fact, the disclaimer box strikes me like it was probably inserted when one of the scientists (Claudio or Roderich) read the article and said "you can't *possibly* publish something like this". (I'll ask Claudio, but he is actually away this week..)

Admittedly Ms. Reich might have had nothing to do with the cover of the magazine, so maybe I can't blame her for that. But the general tenor strikes me as simply being dishonest to sell magazines.

Then again, I've generally had an extremely low opinion of "New Scientist" so perhaps I should not be at all shocked by this. Way back in '02 they did a story about multi-antenna technology and somehow misquoted us as trying to relate cell phones to black holes. (Although this did provide a great deal of comic relief in my seminars for years... so perhaps I should be thankful). See
(you need a subscription to read it).

(2) I'm not complaining too much about the lack of the perfect dirac string though. It certainly IS different from the original dirac concept -- but of course it will be, because the magnetic charge of
these monopoles is not quantized -- so the dirac argument must not hold. But I think it is fair say that the "string" of overturned spins that you create when you pull the defects apart from each other is conceptually like a dirac string. One might argue that pulling an unquantized magnetic (or electric) dipole from the vacuum would also create a "string" in a similar sense. The difference here is the frustrated ground state which makes the location of the string unobservable. I think this is why they use this terminology.

(3) Just to reiterate -- Don't get me wrong. I think the recent work by those folks on spin ice is pretty cool stuff. I just bristled at the way it was presented in such a way as to deliberately confuse with the GUT monopoles, the valentine's day monopole, and so forth. "FOUND AT LAST" makes it sound as if this was the answer to Cabrera's valentine's day monopole.
( Yes, I guess there is also a paragraph near the end explaining that "well, this isn't quite the same thing".. but still....)

Steve said...

PS: I love the part of the article where it says "It doesn't look like [these spin-ice] magnetic monopoles will solve the dark matter problem." Doesn't look? Like there is still some room to doubt?

It really makes me wonder is there is anything you can read that you can trust for accuracy...

Austen said...

I think that's par-for-the-course hyperbole, similar to what we see in Physics papers all the time.

Final thought on the Dirac string thing -- I think the only thing they have in common is that they are both strings, in which case we can only be thankful that string theory wasn't invoked!

I thought I'd also mention that I do very much enjoy reading the blog, both for the Physics and your Oxford adventures.

Steve said...

Glad you are enjoying the blog!

You may be one of very few people in the ideal audience set. Some people seem to like the Oxford adventures, but don't like the physics, and others vice versa.

(... oh yes, and I'm sure there are some that don't like either, but they have long since given up reading the blog anyway.)