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Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World (Macmillan Science) [Kindle Edition]

Eugenie Samuel Reich
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'Reich's account is meticulously researched, based on interviews with over 120 scientists, friends and editors. It is gripping stuff: a surprising page-turner that is well worth reading.' - New Scientist ' ...a wonderful piece of forensic writing.' - Financial Times 'Reich pursues this affair in depth ...does an excellent job of dealing with the facts of the Schon case.' - Martin Blume, Nature 'Reich's readable account of a fairly recent -science fraud, is valuable chiefly as a close look at the 'kitchen' where scientific results are assembled and validated - and whence occasionally comes forth -something that should not have seen the light of day.' - John Derbyshire, The Wall Street Journal 'Eugenie Samuel Reich offers an inside look into how the scientific establishment deals with human imperfection. Plastic Fantastic is a transfixing cautionary tale of how easily wrongdoers can hide and thrive in modern science.' - Jorg Blech, author of Inventing Disease and Pushing Pills 'In a warts 'n all expose of the scientific process, Eugenie Reich investigates the world's greatest scientific fraud. Fascinating, startling and highly readable. If you thought science was as pure as the driven snow, prepare to be shocked.' - Justin Mullins, consultant editor, New Scientist 'A riveting tale of scientific detective work, and a story about an important issue in science that is often overlooked. A well researched page-turner.' - Amir Aczel, author of Fermat's Last Theorem


This is the story of wunderkind physicist Jan Hendrik Schön who faked the discovery of a new superconductor made from plastic. A star researcher at the world-renowned Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, he claimed to have stumbled across a powerful method for making carbon-based crystals into transistors, the switches found on computer chips. Had his experiments worked, they would have paved the way for huge advances in technology--computer chips that we could stick on a dress or eyewear, or even use to make electronic screens as thin and easy-to-fold as sheets of paper.

But as other researchers tried to recreate Schön's experiments, the scientific community learned that it had been duped. Why did so many top experts, including Nobel prize-winners, support Schön? What led the major scientific journals to publish his work, and promote it with press releases? And what drove Schön, by all accounts a mild-mannered, modest and obliging young man, to tell such outrageous lies?


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4.5 von 5 Sternen
4.5 von 5 Sternen
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4.0 von 5 Sternen a must read about how science works 27. August 2009
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
This book is a documentary and a thriller at the same time. At some points you are really eager
to learn how the plot develops (even though the title pretty much gives away how it has to end;
if the "protagonist" would not have been found out, we wouldn't know about an fraud).

There are some chapters which might have been a bit shorter, but that's easy to overlook. The strength of the book is that it does not try to find a scapegoat. The author resisted the temptation to blame exclusively "the system" for promoting scientific fraud as well as the temptation to portray the deceiving scientist as a psychopathic cheat. Instead he shows how systemic factors and a morally lacking mind-set that is too eager to please interacted to produce a series of basically "made up" papers could end up in the best scientific journals.

This book has made me more aware of the process of science that I previously was. Now I should add that I am a scientist in pretty much the same stage as the protagonist of the book -- post Ph.D. in search of a tenured job -- and I find it difficult to judge how this book reads for someone outside science. But it seems to me that it will be good read anyway. And a must read if you are in science.
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5.0 von 5 Sternen Fantastic book about Plastic Fantastic 23. Juni 2009
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
Very interesting book about the story of German scientist Jan Hendrik Schön. This guy invented lots of data and did some breathtaking science, everyone thought. In the end, things didn't end up - Schön was manipulating all the data (in German: er hat seine Daten ge"schön"t ;-)

Reich does a wonderful job breaking down the timeline of the story. You get to understand how Schön came to be the scientist who lived on the frontier of science and fabricated just as much as to not get caught - until he overdid. You see how easy it was for him to stay within the rules: no one actually ever saw his experiments, but everyone trusted him: co-authors, managers at Bell Labs and Lucent, editors at Nature and Science.

It's Eugenie Reich's first book. Great start to a career. Good read, makes me hungry for more.
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4.0 von 5 Sternen A must read for anyone interested in science and technology 13. Juni 2009
Von An (almost) impartial observer - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
This book is an impressively competent description of the shameful events that occurred at the turn of the century at Bell Labs, the pride and glory of the 20th century American science. Reich masterfully recreates the atmosphere in the physics community, both inside the Lab and outside of it, while the scientists tried to cope with stunning, often confusing and contradictory, breakthrough reports from Hendrik Schoen, once an intern, later a postdoc and finally a "member of technical staff", a title designating a permanent position at Bell Labs. Eventually found guilty of fraud by a panel of outside experts, Schoen was the only player in this drama ever to face disciplinary sanctions, as the panel exonerated his multiple co-authors and managers without giving them even as little as a slap on the wrist. Such a clemency was met by the community with a murmur of understanding that "the old boys network" did not wish to punish their own for something that appeared to "only" be bad judgement and administrative incompetence. The book unfolds the full scope of the events unavailable to date to everybody but a select few.

The character of Schoen is the most intriguing. Fresh from graduate school with no record of accomplishments and unburdened with any serious knowledge of physics he seems to be possessed by the desire to conform to the wishes of his superiors. Bell Labs, in financial dire straits after the dot-com burst and strapped for cash, was craving for a scientific breakthrough that could be favorably reported to shareholders. Fraudulent "discoveries" came cheap on Schoen's computer. "In a time of scarce resources, Schoen must have seemed like a manager's dream." His modus operandi was uncomplicated. Having overheard of yet another effect known to occur in ordinary semiconductors, he familiarized himself with the subject (from discussions with colleagues as well as from textbooks) and quickly baked similar data for organic crystals (he later included plastics and superconductors into his resume). Yet, his utter ignorance about physics of various types of materials and nuances that should have been present in thin films (which he allegedly was dealing with) very often raised eyebrows as he failed to recognize why traditional textbook stuff was not fully applicable for his samples.

The fraud would not have happened without Schoen's postdoc supervisor Bertram Batlogg, a star expert in superconductivity. With the field of high temperature superconductivity slowing down significantly (Reich came up with an excellent word "domestication"), and Batlogg moving into the management and further into the category of "has been hot" scientists, he was understandably reluctant to meet Schoen's claims with the criticism they deserved. Quite the opposite, he basked in the glory, using his hard-earned reputation and massive presentation skills to sell to the community the "data" he never bothered to witness being taken (or even to exist in lab notepads). With the amazing number of papers published within a very short period of time in the most prestigious journals "Nature" and "Science", Schoen, Batlogg and Bell Labs were firmly on track to admiration, conference invitations, media attention, prizes.

In retrospect, the gullibility of Schoen's supervisors -- John Rogers, Federico Capasso, Cherry Murray (in ascending order) -- is beyond reason and is actually quite comical. With the "productivity" peaking at seven papers written by Schoen in November 2001 alone (!) the managers did not raise a simple question of how the data acquisition could fit into this busy schedule, but instead "had talked with Schoen about the need to slow down the pace of his research claims".

With some outspoken critics (Nobel prize-winner Laughlin) crying fraud, others (Monroe) pointing to clearly doctored experimental curves, with the failure of numerous outside groups to reproduce even a single Schoen's claim (out of astoundingly many), his direct boss John Rogers had had little reservation in getting onto the patent application with Schoen. Capasso had helped Schoen with fighting critics during his research presentations and with refuting critical comments from IBM researchers, which they submitted to Nature. Top this with the VP for physical sciences Cherry Murray being informed of Schoen's bold handling of "data" (that never existed in the first place) -- she even later claimed Schoen was reprimanded for that (which does not seem to be true according to the book) -- and it becomes clear that the Bell Labs management was much more concerned with the possibility of Schoen leaving Bell Labs than with an old-fashioned truth-seeking.

The tension peaked on February 21 2002 when Bell Labs hosted Buckley prize symposium to honor Bob Willet, the 2002 winner. Despite protests from Willet, Capasso had asked Schoen to speak at the symposium. With all other speakers being former or current Buckley prize recipients the symbolism of Schoen giving the final talk was not lost on the audience -- the Lab was marketing him as the future prize contender.

At last, the king was called naked when a postdoc of Willet (Lynn Loo) noticed that the sets of data supposedly measured for different systems and published in different papers were in fact identical. The wunderkind was so dumb and complacent that did not even bother to bake separate datasets for separate "discoveries". With the inquiries now pouring in from all directions the management had had no other choice but to appoint an investigation panel and eventually fire the fraudster.

Rogers, Capasso and Murray moved on to take professorships at prestigious universities with Cherry Murray even collecting along the way the American Physical Society 2005 management prize "for overseeing Bell Labs at an important time in its history". Bell Labs history ended right there -- within a few years the famous Lab all but ceased to exist.

The book while very entertaining yet suffers from some shortcomings. Though typos abound, this is not a big issue, but the absence of graphics is likely to render the book too technical for non-specialists -- if you do not know what the field-effect transistor is you will probably not figure it out from the book. Pictures of the main players would also have been quite interesting to the reader.

As a final note, while Reich demonstrates an unusually high level of understanding of physics for a journalist she drops the ball in the Epilogue. Describing recent advances of organic electronics, and graphene, in particular, she writes: "The carriers of charge in graphene turned out to be massless particles that moved as fast through the material as light would, a cosmological surprise more profound than anything Schoen claimed." Ironically, this statement is as "fantastic" as any "plastic" made by Schoen. Charge carriers in graphene, while indeed massless, still move three hundred times slower than light (about as fast as in most mundane metals), and there are absolutely no "cosmological surprises" there.
4 von 4 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
3.0 von 5 Sternen Good book, but missing the broader perspective... 24. Februar 2012
Von Dario Ventra - Veröffentlicht auf
In times of controversy about the work and rules of academia and the scientific establishment, this book represents a valuable, in-depth analysis of what has been the biggest science scandal in the last decades, the protracted fabrication of fata by young physicist J.H.Schön. The book is compact and readable, following the whole chain of events from the initial situation of research at Bell Labs, the main stage of Schön's fraud, through the early career move of the young scientist from Europe to the US, to the amazing dust kicked up by his innumerable publications, to close with the inevitable clean sweep of data and working hypotheses made that couldn't escape the rigors of scientific investigation in the end.

While I agree with other reviewers in praising the book for its exhaustive coverage of the whole story, I would like to point out just a few shortcomings which made it less informative and enjoyable than it could have been otherwise.
1) The author insists too much, too often in dropping passing reference to this and that detailed aspect of the physics of superconduction and of the engineering of electric circuits. Unfortunately, most of us are not specialized in these fields, and some illustrations and an introductory background section on the topic would have made all these notes much more meaningful (which they are not!).

2) I am nonplussed at how the Macmillan publishing company sent this work to print without checking for typos, of which there is an annoying abundance especially throughout the second half of the book!

3) What I most missed in this work, was an effort by the author to zoom out from what was happening around Schön and co-workers, from the case in and of itself, and to expand on what it actually means for science at large. There were many possible aspects to consider... What are we to make of a scientific establishment which is nowadays ruled by networking and pressure to publish high numbers of not necessarily high-quality papers?? What can this represent for actual scientific progress?? What can we conclude about the role of parasitic supervisors and co-authors who have no actual clue whatsoever of what is being discussed in an article to which they contribute only their signature?? Can we spot any faults in the fantastically inefficient system of peer-review maintained by scientific journals only for its low costs and its convenient flexibility in dissipating responsibility when later controversy arises??

These and other questions are what actually makes the case of 'plastic fantastic' a great opportunity to measure the advances of modern science against the amazing problems it is being faced with. In order to really make this book well-rounded and of impact for the debate, I think the author should have contributed perspectives on those issues... As it is, this remains a very detailed narration of an important case of scientific fraud, but too limited in scope.
6 von 7 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Absorbing, disturbing, compulsive reading 21. Mai 2009
Von Amarante - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
Few people outside the world of science may have heard of fraudster Jan Hendrik Schon, until Plastic Fantastic. Eugenie Samuel Reich has produced an intriguing factual "novel", based on a superior depth of research and pieced together intricately into a suspenseful story. You cannot help but be drawn into Schon's world, as you come to understand the process by which someone attains the coveted goal of "science fame" in the modern world. The story of Schon has been told before, as it was reported at the time just seven years ago when his fraud was unveiled, though it was never attributed a pivotal place in the history of science fraud, a fact Reich has possibly now reversed. But Plastic Fantastic is more than just a great piece of documentary writing. The author has recognised the almost mythical qualities of Schon himself, and given centre-stage to this enigmatic and fascinating character. Artfully weaving together background, fact and anecdote, Reich has produced a compelling page-turner, one which not only captivates the reader throughout, but leaves you pondering over it long after you put it down.
3 von 3 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen An important and engaging book on scientific fraud 31. Oktober 2009
Von Dan B - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Verifizierter Kauf
I found that the book moves at a good pace, because as events unfolded I kept asking: "how does Schon continue to pull this off?" and "how will he get caught?" As the excellent first review of June 13 described, his managers at Bell Labs we unable to discover or contain the fraud, took no responsibility for their lack of oversight, and, for the most part, suffered no repercussions.

How could Schon fool (nearly) everyone for 4 years? He was a mediocre student, with a poor grasp of the physics underlying his publications. Wouldn't other scientists pop into his lab to see the amazing devices that nobody else could replicate? Did nobody ever insist that he keep notebooks of his experiments, as well as the raw data collected. (Schon apparently kept everything in the Origin graphics package.)

How did he satisfy the colleagues? He used their knowledge against them. He showed them his fictitious data and solicited their suggestions for the next thing to do. He would then fulfill their expectations by manufacturing the data that he had been told to expect. If he were challenged, he would try to be accommodating, changing the graphics or description of the device, or falling back on the excuse that he didn't understand what was happening, but was just presenting data,

Certainly Schon was the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time (Bell Labs during breakup and rapid downsizing). His greatest ability is to tell people exactly what they want to hear, to get useful information from them for his next fraud, and -- always -- to hide his deceptions. Schon is a risk-taker; he lives for the thrill of his game -- manipulating others to get undeserved rewards (praise, fame, money). All his energy goes into planning and generating the next fabrication and deflecting criticism of previous fakes. Such a personality disorder is totally foreign to most scientists, who get their thrills from the real game, and for this reason very few scientists came to the logical conclusion that the whole thing was a con job.

Reich's publisher, Macmillan, did a poor job with the book. There are enough typos to make the book appear not to have been proofread. They used cheap paper, barely above the quality of newspaper. And there are no illustrations or photographs, as others have noted: illustrations to help explain the physics of the devices and show the graphics that eventually got Schon caught, and photos of the people involved.

Reich's treatment at the end of the book suffers because it has no discussion of the specific findings of the external committee that found the work to be fraudulent. This would have been a more satisfying conclusion than simply stating that Schon was fired as a result. But she does an excellent job laying out the problem of scientific misconduct, and the difficulty of its detection when the perpetrator is accommodating and actively deflects criticism. Ultimately, Schon was brought down because he couldn't restrain himself from publishing wild new fabrications on a nearly bi-weekly basis. So I had to wonder how long he might have remained undetected if his rate of publications had not been so frantic and in so many different specialized areas.

Finally, to really understand Schon's motivations, as well as the reasons for his success at Bell Labs, I would suggest the book "Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work," by Babiak and Hare. Hare is the world expert in this personality type.
5 von 6 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen Highly Detailed and Fast-Paced 27. Mai 2009
Von G. Poirier - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
In this interesting book, the author describes the recent case of a young physicist who was found guilty of fraudulent behavior in his field of research. The field involved is condensed matter physics - in particular, work related to micro-electronics and nano-technology. It is clear that the author is highly familiar with the case and she is quite fluent in the scientific jargon of this field. The writing style is authoritative, fast-paced and very detailed throughout. Perhaps because of this last point, I found several passages in this book to be a bit dry, although some sections are really quite gripping. Many technical details are provided and specialized terms are usually explained, but not always. Unfortunately, the book only contains two figures (graphs); several more figures, including photographs of some of the main characters and perhaps of some of the equipment used would have been useful. Editorially, the book contains a fair amount of unnecessary repetition and a greater-than-average number of rather annoying typographical errors. Although a general reader can certainly glean a great deal from reading this book, those who are likely to enjoy it the most would include scientists working in this field, scientists in general as well as science buffs.
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