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St. Martin's Press
Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World

Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World

by Eugenie Samuel ReichEugenie Samuel Reich
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Highly regarded science journalist Eugenie Samuel Reich recounts the case of wunderkind physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, who faked the discovery of a new superconductor at the world famous Bell Laboratories. Many of the world's top scientific journals and experts, including Nobel Prize-Winners, supported Schön, only to learn that they were the victims of the biggest fraud in science. What drove Schön, by all accounts a mild-mannered, modest, and obliging young man, to tell such outrageous lies? Reich dives into the riveting world of science to examine how fraud perpetuates itself today. Schön's rise and fall will be an essential and fascinating account of the missteps of the scientific community for years to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900230623841
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/27/2010
Series: MacSci Series
Edition description: NE
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Eugenie Samuel Reich is a former editor at New Scientist. She has written for Nature, New Scientist, and The Boston Globe, and is known for her hard hitting reports on irregular science. Several of her reports have resulted in institutional investigations. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Plastic Fantastic

How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World

By Eugenie Samuel Reich

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2009 Eugenie Samuel Reich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-62134-3



Bertram Batlogg wasn't feeling the slightest bit surprised. He was captured on camera at the back of the stage, his hands clasped in applause, with a slight smile on his face as photographers took pictures of the executive vice president for research, Arun Netravali, embracing the newly crowned Nobel Laureate, Horst Störmer. It was wonderful to hear that the most prestigious prize in physics had been awarded to a close colleague, Batlogg later told a press officer. It was also news that Batlogg had been expecting after more than a decade as a manager at Bell Labs.

It was October 1998, and Murray Hill still felt the same. America's most illustrious industrial lab was tangled in feeder roads for Interstate 78, a forty-five-minute drive from New York City. The New Jersey estate held a complex of pale orange buildings, topped off with an upside-down V of copper-oxide green rooftops that looked like wings poised to spread. Behind the buildings, the sharply sloping woodland blocked out sight of the highway.

Bell Labs research took place in the shadow of a remarkable history. In 1947, researchers at Murray Hill invented the transistor, laying the foundation for the development of the silicon chip and the computer industry. Bell Labs researchers did much of the groundwork toward the invention of the first laser, and they were the first to use radio telescopes to detect the echo of the Big Bang. With researchers in fields from astrophysics to the manufacture of optical fibers, Bell Labs earned a reputation for ambitious but reliable research that had repeatedly led to technological progress.

For over half a century, Bell Labs had been owned by the telephone monopoly AT&T and had plenty of money to spend on science. But in 1984, the monopoly broke up, and after 1989, managers encouraged Bell Lab researchers to focus on research with commercial applications. Disenchanted, top scientists began to leave for universities and were mostly not replaced by new recruits. In 1995, ownership of Bell Labs was transferred to the newly formed company Lucent Technologies. It seemed as if the prospects for science were about to get even worse.

But that didn't happen straightaway. What came next was a trend defying scientific revival. The late 1990s were the swinging years of the Internet boom, and as a telecom company Lucent flourished, and so did its scientists. After several years of decline, the number of discoveries published by researchers at Murray Hill began to rally. The rate of patent filings on new inventions was on the increase too. Then, in October 1998, the announcement came that Bell Labs' Horst Störmer had won the Nobel Prize for Physics. As the good news spread, Bertram Batlogg was one of hundreds of scientists to leave his office and make his way down the steel-walled utilitarian passages of the research buildings into Murray Hill's vast cathedral-like cafeteria to celebrate a bit of quantum physics that had never made the company's shareholders so much as a dime.

In 1982, Störmer and Daniel Tsui of Bell Labs had made the first measurements hinting that electrons, the negatively charged particles that transport electricity on computer chips, can be made to split apart in a strong magnetic field. The finding had been unexpected because electrons had previously been considered indivisible. But it had been explained in detail as a counterintuitive consequence of quantum mechanics, the theory that describes the way particles behave under the influence of the universe's fundamental forces. The theoretical physicist Robert Laughlin shared the 1998 Nobel Prize with Störmer and Tsui for the discovery that had become known as "the fractional quantum Hall effect." (The nineteenth-century American physicist Edwin Hall had discovered the non quantum Hall effect.)

By 1998, Horst Störmer had moved to Columbia University in New York, but he was still affiliated with Bell Labs. He left Manhattan on the day of the Nobel Prize announcement and traveled to New Jersey to share the glory. The Murray Hill cafeteria was decked with balloons. There was free cake. It was the third time in three years that research associated in some way with Bell Labs had been recognized by the Nobel Prize Foundation, and people joked to one another: "Do we win a Nobel Prize every year?" But it wasn't only on the inside that the prospects for science at Bell Labs seemed bright. Out in California, even Laughlin, Störmer's cowinner and a ready critic of poor science management, took a moment out of his Nobel Prize press conference to praise Lucent for putting science back together.

To Bertram Batlogg, who had known Störmer for years, it seemed, if anything, surprising that the Nobel Prize hadn't been awarded for this work sooner. But the celebration was an opportunity to look back on the good old days of science under AT&T, and to feel optimistic about the future. Lucent Technologies' web site quoted Batlogg describing staff scientists as "elated" and hopeful that the recognition would attract the best scientists to Murray Hill.

Among Batlogg's interests at the time was a research program to explore the industrial potential of plastics. He had already hired Jan Hendrik Schön, a postdoctoral researcher from a lab in Germany, to join the program. Over the next three and a half years, Schön went on to make a series of discovery claims that turned out to include some of the most outrageous lies ever to be exposed in modern physics. After Schön's disgrace, Batlogg and other managers, steeped as they were in the Bell Labs tradition of research excellence, emphatically insisted that Schön's fraud was something they couldn't possibly have seen coming.


The chain of events that led Batlogg to recruit Schön had been set in motion three years earlier. It started, Batlogg later recalled, during a performance review. Batlogg was the head of Bell Labs' Department of Materials Physics. He managed around a dozen staff researchers, known as a "Member of Technical Staff " or "MTS." The MTSs ran their own laboratory, and every year filled out a form listing scientific contributions to be assessed by managers. In the weeks leading up to these reviews, Batlogg often noticed technical memoranda piling up on his desk, and he warmed to his staff 's burst of productivity. He tried to speak up for them, but department heads graded in a group so that nobody could inflate the grades of his or her own people. The reviews turned into debates about the impact of science in one department versus the impact of science in another, and Batlogg, an appealing sandy-haired manager, had no trouble holding his own. He was a charming, ambitious, and also very competitive person who mostly enjoyed the back and forth of heated discussions and regarded them as a way of getting to the bottom of the most interesting scientific questions.

In 1995, one of these questions arose from the work of a team of Bell Labs researchers who had been making transistors out of plastic. Transistors are the devices that switch current inside computers. A modern computer contains as many as a billion transistors, wired together on silicon chips in circuits that process information. At first blush, the replacement of silicon with plastic inside transistors should sound revolutionary. Plastics are mostly thought of as insulators, materials that are electrically dead and unable to conduct current. Silicon and other materials used in transistors are semiconductors, materials that can change their properties from insulating to conducting under the right conditions. But scientists have known since at least the 1970s that some plastics are semiconductors and, in principle, could be used to make transistors too. The prototype plastic transistors being made at Bell Labs in the mid-1990s conducted current hundreds of thousands of times more slowly than commercial silicon transistors, but research had progressed to the point where, Batlogg gathered, some companies might be ready to market the first plastic computer chips within five or ten years. Plastic electronics were expected to be better than silicon for some applications, such as light, flexible radio identification tags that are used to track goods in chain stores like Walmart or the Gap, or computer screens so thin and bendable that they might one day be sold as "electronic paper." Plastic chips might also be more easily woven into clothing or accessories. This quest for a versatile, practical electrical plastic eventually provided the commercial backdrop to several of Jan Hendrik Schön's fraudulent discovery claims.

But the relationship between the possible product applications and science was not simple. One of the Bell Labs' MTSs working with plastics, Ananth Dodabalapur, and his colleagues were claiming that the flow of current through their devices was as fast as would ever be possible for plastic electronics. But the claim was controversial, and became even more so when researchers at Pennsylvania State University reported making devices in which electrical charge seemed to move faster. To Batlogg this raised an interesting question. If the current prototypes weren't reaching the limits of plastic electronics, what would?

Also present at performance reviews was Bob Laudise, a senior manager nearing retirement who had provided some of the impetus for the company's effort to develop plastic electronics. Laudise had a background in crystal growth, the skill of transforming chemicals into crystals. Knowing that plastics are made out of rings or chains of carbon atoms that are arranged in a chaotic tangle, Laudise and Batlogg discussed the possibility that the chaotic internal structure was slowing the movement of electrons through the materials. Could the molecules in plastics be rearranged into a more orderly way? The ideal form would be an organic crystal, in which the irregular organic molecules would be arrayed in a regular way. To visualize how the interior of an organic crystal might look, think of the regular way that irregularly shaped sardines can be stacked neatly in a tin. Batlogg was struck by the idea that electrical measurements on organic crystals might be able to reveal the ultimate limits of plastic electronics because the effect of chaos and disorder would be reduced to a minimum. And once those limits had been reached, it would be possible to address a host of new scientific questions. For example, did electricity flow through plastic and organic materials in the same way as it did through silicon and other semiconductors? Could the new materials reveal anything about the quintessential nature of matter and electricity? Might previously unknown quantum effects be discovered?

Several of these questions were scientifically interesting, but the answers weren't expected to lead directly to new plastic electronics. As often happens in science, the managers could not be sure how having a deep understanding of organic crystals would bring about technological progress. But they still felt confident that it would. At Bell Labs, founded in 1925 as the innovation powerhouse of AT&T, it was traditional to argue that there was a virtuous spiral between science and technology. To explain this idea, attributed to the Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir, the managers liked to give historical examples. The first transistor had been created at Bell Labs in 1947 following fundamental research on the properties of semiconductors. The device was memorialized by the display of a replica in the lobby entrance to Murray Hill. Nearby was a bust of Alexander Graham Bell, the nineteenthcentury inventor of the telephone. In one of his lectures, Bell had coined a phrase that became Bell Labs' motto: "Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do so you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before." To be truly innovative, an industrial lab needed not only product development, but also a culture of free-thinking scientific exploration. Scientific managers at Bell Labs were always looking for research projects that appeared to embody this idea.

Organic crystals were a good example. Once plastic electronics had been identified as a possible future technology for Lucent, the managers wanted to lead the world in understanding the fundamental scientific principles that governed the electrical behavior of the materials. Then engineers working on product development would be well placed to make rational decisions, rather than having to grope in the dark. "The idea was that you couldn't develop something as a technology without understanding fundamentals, that this was putting the cart before the horse," said Peter Littlewood, who followed the discussions as head of the Department of Theoretical Physics Research. Often, managers taking this view would blur the line between science and technology, so that when I asked Batlogg whether the research program on organic crystals was fundamental science or applied science that was relevant to technology he replied that "the question makes no sense, because there is no difference between those things."

For scientists in the Physical Research Lab, an organization of about one hundred researchers that included Batlogg's department, the maintenance of this blurred line between science and technology was a question of survival. Researchers in the Physical Research Lab did more fundamental science than anyone else at Bell Labs. If Lucent decided to cut back on science, this lab would be the first to face the axe. As for Bertram Batlogg, he was best known not for his contributions to product development but for his scientific contributions. According to one widely circulated list that ranked physicists by citation (the number of times their work was mentioned by others), Batlogg was fourth, with two Bell Labs colleagues second and third, in the entire world. In his heart, Batlogg was also far more of a scientist than an engineer. For example, when a dent appeared in the family car, Batlogg apparently tried to save a few bucks by fixing it at home with a crowbar, and, the story goes, the crowbar snapped. An engineer might have been embarrassed, but as a scientist who appreciated the fundamental properties of materials, Batlogg's reaction was to feel impressed by the strength of the steel in the flanks of his American car.

Traditionally, Bell Labs had a place for scientists who were curious about the fundamental properties of materials, but who were not as practical as their engineering colleagues. And anyone interested in the intrinsic nature of matter would have to be interested in the organic crystals envisioned by Bob Laudise. Five years on, when the Bell Labs research program appeared to be developing into a huge success, Batlogg gave a seminar in which he looked back at the early days and explained that the more orderly the molecules in plastics, the faster the charge might move, and so the better the potential performance of plastic electronics would be. Although Batlogg had not known what the future held for the new technology, he had been confident that, by making crystals, Bell Labs could stay a step ahead of competitors in exploring where the new technology would lead. "It was natural for a manager to ask, 'Where does it end?'" he said.


Bertram Batlogg was known for his work on superconductors, materials that are able to conduct electricity without putting up resistance. In contrast to semiconductors, which are useful for computing because they can change their electrical character from insulating to conducting, thus switching current on and off and so processing information, the most obvious potential application of superconductors is to transport large amounts of electrical power, for example in national power grids. But the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes first detected superconductivity in mercury in 1911 at a temperature only a few degrees above absolute zero. It seemed that any money saved by using superconductors in practice would be outweighed by the expense of making the materials cold enough to work.

In 1986 the outlook changed. Georg Bednorz and Alexander Müller at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory reported on the discovery of a cuprate, a compound containing layers of copper and oxygen atoms that became a superconductor at the relatively higher temperature of thirty-five degrees above absolute zero. This was high enough that it began to seem practical to try to develop a superconductor that would work at practically attainable temperatures, including perhaps even room temperature—the temperature at which we live.

Batlogg's group at Bell Labs (as well as many other researchers) followed up rapidly on the Swiss claim by measuring and characterizing the properties of other cuprates. They came across compounds that turned superconducting above seventy-seven degrees, a temperature that, while still a long way from room temperature, could be reached using liquid nitrogen, an affordable coolant. In 1987, the Swiss team won the Nobel Prize in recognition of their role in opening up a new field of research.

Batlogg was promoted to be the head of the Materials Physics Research Department at Bell Labs shortly before the field of hightemperature superconductivity or "high-Tc" took off. Alongside his departmental responsibilities, he continued to do science, working closely with two American colleagues in other departments. Bob Cava, a chemist, made samples of the new superconductors, while Bruce Van Dover, a physicist, made electrical measurements. Batlogg's laboratory was responsible for measurements of the way in which the new samples responded to magnetic fields, a type of measurement in which he was an expert. The team worked fast, by trusting each others' expertise. "If Cava told me something was 10% strontium, or Batlogg told me it expelled 40% of the magnetic field, those were facts," Van Dover explained. The relationships were also candid. Batlogg was born in Austria and came to Bell Labs after completing his PhD in 1979 at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. When he bridled at the way that Americans sometimes abbreviated his first name from the Austrian form, "Bertram," to the American form, "Bert," adding that "Bert" sounded like a character from Sesame Street, Bob Cava responded by signing his own name "Ernie" in a memo. Batlogg was privately amused.


Excerpted from Plastic Fantastic by Eugenie Samuel Reich. Copyright © 2009 Eugenie Samuel Reich. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents

Introduction * Into the Woods * Hendrik * A Slave to Publication * Greater Expectations * Not Ready to be a Product * Journals with "Special Status" * Scientists Astray * Plastic Fantastic * The Nanotechnology Department * The Fraud Taboo * ‘Game Over' * Epilogue * Notes and Additional References

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