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.

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