Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Plastic Fantastic thoughts

Reading Eugenie Reich's Plastic Fantastic brought me right back to the heady days of my postdoc, job search, and nearly a year spent with a student chasing what turned out to be fabricated results. In hindsight I learned an awful lot about human nature and the sociology of science, and some of that is conveyed to readers of this book, though not all.

First, the book review. I think Reich writes well, and I think she did a good job simplifying the science where appropriate for a more general audience. Criticizing the details (e.g., I wasn't a big fan of her definition of "polaron") misses the larger point (you don't need to know what a polaron is to appreciate the fact that Schon didn't fully get what polarons are either). Personally I think it would have been useful to spend more time on standard scientific practice at Bell Labs - Schon's claims (going back to his doctoral work in Germany) that he didn't keep notebooks or save primary data aren't just damning - they're completely outside what I saw essentially everyone else do, both at Bell and in grad school. How on earth did this happen? How did no one immediately supervising Schon never notice that he had no notebooks?! The idea that researchers at Bell were so independent that no one would ever notice this is crazy. I also think it would have been good to spend a bit more time on the denoument, at least discussing further the major issues raised by this whole affair: what are the responsibilities of co-authors? What are the responsibilities of managers? There were also some nuances of what happened as the scandal broke that I didn't see (though I could've missed them on a quick read), including some choice remarks by Batlogg that were rather remarkable at the time. [One other point: Reich points out that the Departments of Defense and Energy don't have central offices of research integrity. Strictly speaking, that's right, but the way it's written makes it sound like DOD and DOE never even consider the matter, which is not true. Since 2000, anyway, DOE has used the following (pdf) policy regarding research misconduct, which is basically the blanket federal policy applied at DOD as well.] In the end, the book is very effective at what it does, though it raises many more questions than it answers.

Regarding specific comments of others.... I don't think management was dealt with unfairly here in general. I didn't feel like Cherry was particularly singled out. Also, the book doesn't convey well one factor that I think is important to remember: most of the immediate managers (e.g., Rogers, Capasso) were running large, active research programs of their own. There's no question that between that and the corporate turmoil from the collapse of telecom, these people had other things on their minds than trying to manage Schon. Now, that being said, how in the name of all that is holy did these people not realize that Schon's publication rate was simply unphysical? NO ONE can write a paper every two weeks for two years. Didn't this raise questions at the journals, too? One other comment about management that was raised only indirectly.... There were a number of people who were thrilled to claim (effectively) some share of the credit for this stuff when things looked good, but were quick to disavow all responsibility when things went bad. You can't have it both ways.

(One final point that has nothing to do with the author: the choice to put a silhouette of Icarus on the cover is deeply flawed. Icarus actually flew.)

7 comments:

Don Monroe said...

Thanks, Doug.

But I'm afraid that no one has been able to replicate Icarus' flight.

Doug Natelson said...

Daedalus did, though one cannot really consider the two to be independent trials....

Steve said...

Nice review Doug.

Actually, I tried very hard to emphasize to Reich that during that period there was a lot of management attention that was on other things -- like trying not to have the entire lab dissolved completely in the downsizing. She did quote me saying this (kind of, a bit) but she doesn't give it a whole lot of attention.

As for lab books: Not once in 7 years as a department head did I look at a lab book from any of the experimentalists who were my group save Loren. I dare say, some of them would have been extremely angry if I went poking around in their raw data. It was so assumed that people knew how to keep records, that no one ever thought there could be an issue.

Doug Natelson said...

Hi Steve - My point about experimental notebooks is that it's absolutely insane that no one, not even coauthors, ever saw one, even inadvertently. I mean, I never worked directly with John Rogers, David Abusch-Magdar, Julia Hsu, Rafi Kleiman, etc., but on more than one occasion I was either in the cleanroom or in their lab and saw them actually using their notebooks. Since I was working directly with him, I saw Bob Willett write in his notebook all the time. This isn't something I set out to do, but I definitely saw it. Similarly, Bob never asked to look in my notebook, but he certainly knew I had one and knew where it was if need be. I'm still mystified as to how Batlogg never noticed that Schon was not keeping any records.

Patrick Shea said...

Ah, yes, thanks Hendrik, for making it much more difficult to get funding for all the organic electronics community when I was in graduate school. Good thing I didn't actually try to make a lasing transistor from anthracene. Although I'm confident that light-emitting transistor research will eventually yield an electrically driven organic laser, once someone fashions the transistor into a resonant shape.

Schlupp said...

Don, Doug,

The experiments on human flight were repeated in the lab of W. Smith.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayland_Smith

Doug Natelson said...

Schlupp - That's great, and educational, too!