Tuesday, May 29, 2012

May 28, 2002: First look at internal Schön investigations

Just after Memorial Day in 2002, our committee finally received the records of multiple internal Bell Labs investigations of the work of Hendrik Schön. The frustrating delay of several weeks in getting these documents was caused in part by the need to be sure that we had legal indemnification from Lucent for our activities. That being accomplished, we were ready to begin in earnest, and the documentation was weighty and troubling.

We received a large three-ring binder with a dozen or so sections dealing with various issues. In addition, we got copies of email correspondence with and about Hendrik, including management discussions about various issues. (There was no easy way to verify how complete the email collection was, but there was a lot there.)

Since these documents, including internal company communications, were made available as part of our official committee activities, I can't share them in detail, even now. But they illustrated serious concern among the Bell Labs managers, going back at least to the summer of 2001. Hendrik was strongly encouraged, for example, to help other researchers to reproduce his extraordinary dielectric films, and was told that it was more important to solidify his existing work than to demonstrate new breakthroughs.

This concern was not in evidence, however, in various public statements about the work, notably the "self-aligned monolayer field-effect transistor," or SAMFET, described in the fall of 2001. For example, a Business Week article quoted his recently appointed immediate manager John Rogers as if he had witnessed the assembly: "The whole thing just happens in a beaker at a chemistry bench." A Lucent press release included endorsements of the profound potential from his then third-level manager Cherry Murray ("Although there may be no practical applications for a decade, it could lead to a new paradigm in electronics") and second-level manager Federico Capasso ("The molecular-scale transistors that we have developed may very well serve as the historical 'bookend' to the transistor legacy started by Bell Labs in 1947." Ironically the word "bookend" was more appropriate than he seemed to realize.). Capasso is also reported to have told an internal Bell Labs meeting that it was OK if the work was not completely correct because it was so exciting that it would stimulate further work that would clarify what was going on.

During the same period, Hendrik's original mentor, Bertram Batlogg, continued to extol the earlier experiments on single-crystal organic semiconductors, even as he strongly questioned Hendrik's description in an unpublished document of the way the insulating film had been optimized.

There is a profound lesson in the fact that all of these fine scientists were willing to put aside their own misgivings and to publicly endorse Hendrik's results. I can't seriously entertain the idea that any of them the knew the results were faked and were deliberately misleading people. Instead, I have to believe that they had managed to deceive themselves that the problems were mistakes or misunderstandings, and that the groundbreaking work would stand the test of time even after these problems were resolved.

They were all wrong. The scientific world would have been better served if they had been more willing to openly question the honesty of their sincere young colleague.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

May 24, 2002: What got the Schön investigation going?

Leading into the spring of 2002, there had been increasing discomfort with Hendrik Schön's stunning body of scientific results. The official investigation into his possible misconduct, however, only began when a group of nano-physicists noticed duplicated data in five papers. As described nicely in Eugenie Reich's book Plastic Fantastic, Lydia Sohn (then at Princeton), Paul McEuen, Leo Kouwenhoven, and Charleses Marcus and Lieber sent their findings to the Bell Labs management and to the journals where the articles were published at the beginning of May. It is interesting to speculate whether and how the investigation would have proceeded if it had been communicated less publicly.

During this period, a PowerPoint version of the slides was widely circulating in the nano community. The usual technique was to print out the graphs on transparencies and line them up, but I include them here as animated gifs for a change of pace. The figures show very similar curves, even though the data are represented as being taken from completely different samples. In principle this could happen once through gross negligence, by sending the wrong figure (with the wrong label!). In addition, however, the axes are sometimes differ in sign or by an integer multiplier, or they have some curves missing, which are much harder to understand. But the most damning evidence is that the small deviations from the curves are often very similar in different plots, even though this "noise" should vary each time the measurement is repeated.

For many researchers, seeing these images was all the evidence they needed that Schön had fabricated at least some of his data. Others held out hope that there was some innocent explanation, and looked to our "blue-ribbon panel" to resolve the issue. We on the committee felt a lot of pressure to get it right. But by this time ten years ago, we still hadn't yet gotten any detailed documentation from Lucent.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

May 21, 2002: Investigating the Schön Affair

Ten years ago this week, Lucent Technologies announced that it had convened a panel to investigate possible scientific misconduct at Bell Labs. Interestingly, the story in the New York Times by Kenneth Chang featured the role of Bertram Batlogg, mentioning Hendrik Schön only in the final paragraph.

At the time, I thought this story missed the point, since it seemed clear that Schön was at the center of the problems. (Batlogg wasn't even an author on some of the papers in question.) But as Chang told me later, Batlogg had been highly visible when the spectacular "breakthroughs" were being announced. For this reason, Chang (who had covered the earlier work) thought that Batlogg's was the name that readers would be most likely to recognize, and not highlighting it would be a disservice to readers.

One of the biggest challenges to the committee (which I served on) was figuring out how to deal with Batlogg's role, neither assigning him primary responsibility nor minimizing his role.