Tuesday, March 29, 2005

New Scientist putting upbeat spin on work of Schon?

The March 19-25, 2005 issue of New Scientist has an article entitled Crazy about Crystals which puts Jan-Hendrik Schon, formerly of Bell Labs, in an upbeat light.

Some of the text (p. 38 ff):

While some were keen to airbrush Schon out of history, a few determined researchers refused to give up: Schon's work had fired their imagination. "The work in my lab was inspired by Schon," says Mike Gershenson, who runs the lab where Podzorov works at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. "Without him, I would not have dived into this field." In a discipline where careers can be tainted just by association, that is a brave statement. But Gershenson is simply acknowledging the facts, he says. There was a very good reason why Schon was pursuing organic transistors, however dishonest his methods: they offer a radical and potentially lucrative way to build cheap, light and flexible electronics. Ant that reason still stands.

Podzorov tried to insulate rubrene crystal with parylene. Early in 2002, Podzorov couldn't publish immediately. Reviewers wanted more evidence. It took Podzorov another eight months. Meanwhile Schon's highest profile papers were being investigated and retracted. Christian Kloc wanted to make transistors.

page 41: In the end, a small but robust core of Schon's research did survive the misconduct scandal and inspire others to take the ideas forward. But many people are troubled by it. They worry that researchers will be encouraged to fake results if they think that science could eventually vindicate them. Others play down Schon's role. "This is just science getting on with its life after a perturbation." No one condones what Schon did, yet there is something defiant about the researchers who decided not to quit. "If you went into the field because of the hype, you will leave. But if you thought about it, you will have worked seriously and got somewhere. (Morpugo).

page 5: He was sacked from Bell Labs in 2002 after an investigation found evidence of misconduct in 17 of his papers. He tarnished the reputation of science and damaged many careers. But that doesn't mean we have to hide the positive effect he had. Plenty of respected scientific achievements have dubious roots... Sanitising history is the last thing we should do if we want to prevent future misdemeanours.

Note that several of the issues discussed were actually foreseen by the Beasley report, although you would never know it by reading the New Scientist article.

In November 2002, I published in Intellectual Property Today an article entitled "Walking on Sunshine?" which discussed some of the issues with Schon's work. Some excerpts follow:

On September 26, 2002, the New York Times ran a page 1 story titled "Panel Says Bell Labs Scientist Faked Discoveries in Physics," with a first sentence "A series of extraordinary advances in physics claimed by scientists at Bell Labs relied on fraudulent data, a committee investigating the matter reported yesterday," referring to the committee headed by Professor Malcolm Beasley of Stanford University, which had issued a 127 page report on the matter. n2 A headline in the Newark Star-Ledger was even less kind: "Scientist's 'breakthrough' secret: He cheated." n3 Of the impact, the Times article noted: "the scandal tarnishes surrounding participants, including the co-authors who noticed nothing amiss, the scientific journals that critics say moved too quickly to publish the sensational findings, and Bell Labs' parent company, Lucent Technologies, which has been buffeted by a collapse of the market for its telecommunications equipment and tens of thousands of layoffs."

The report implicated only one scientist, Jan Hendrik Schon, and found 16 instances of scientific misconduct pertaining to a certain set of published papers. One of these papers, concerning superconducting oxidized buckerminsterfullerene, n4 illustrates some of the problems. A year ago, managers at Bell Labs were touting the work. Kitta MacPherson quoted Federico Capasso as saying "This shows that buckyballs may live up to their initial promise of being a material that will be very important to technology." n5 After the Beasley report, The Economist noted: "Through a carefully staged set of "improvements" to the technique, he got this up to 117degrees -- well into the liquid nitrogen zone. Buckyballs are a discovery looking for an application, and it seemed as though Dr Schon alone had found one." n6

Separately, there is an issue with the role played by scientific journals. The Asian Wall Street Journal reported: "Physicists are fuming that Science and Nature were warned not to publish Dr. Schon's problematic papers in 2001. But the two are locked in such fierce competition for prestige and publicity that they may be cutting corners to get "hot" papers. "These were revolutionary findings," physicist Robert Austin of Princeton University says. "Science and Nature should have been very cautious. When journals fail, and they did here, the system breaks down." Editors at both say they published only after thorough review and in good faith." n7 In turn, Nature had queried whether researchers in the physical sciences were ready to tackle the issue of misconduct in an article entitled "Time to wise up?", published July 11, 2002. n8 This article had some flaws.

First, the Nature article conspicuously omitted discussion of the efforts of Paul Solomon of IBM to publish a criticism of the Schon work n9 On November 5, 2001, Solomon had written a letter to Nature about the Schon work; his discussion included text: "In short, the problem we raise is profound and involves the very basics of our understanding of electrostatic devices . . . " Nature did not publish Solomon's letter. Solomon noted to me on October 2, 2002 of Nature's failure to publish his letter: "The fact that such letters are not published leads to a false impression that results such as Schon's, being published in the "most prestigious scientific journal" has received the imprimatur of his scientific peers. It can mislead the broad readership of Nature who by and large do not have the tools to evaluate it for themselves. Such an article would not have been accepted for publication in the 'less prestigious' specialist literature."

Second, the Nature article did not accurately report on the Task Force on Ethics of the American Chemical Society, of which this author is a member. The purpose of the Task Force has been to recommend whether or not a permanent ethics committee is established and to define the scope of the committee. Although in the end, the resultant committee may have primarily an educational role, the Task Force contemplated issues of "journal error" n10 and of "co-author responsibility." n11

On October 7, 2002, there were reports that Bell Labs was withdrawing six (6) patent applications in the field of nanoelectronics, including molecular scale transistors and superconductivity. n12 Of application 20020121669 ("Organic superconductive field-effect switching device," filed January 16, 2002), one notes claim 3 to a "methylene trihalide," claim 4 to a "methylene trichloride," and claim 5 to a "methylene tribromide," all non-existent compounds. Even if the data were not suspect, there might have been other problems here.

n12 Linda A. Johnson, "Bell Labs Withdraws Patent Requests," AP, October 7, 2002; Jeff May, "Lucent pulls patent bids to 'correct the record,' Newark Star-Ledger, p. 14 (Oct. 8, 2002). Curiously, although the Beasley report investigated journal articles, the initial outcome was the termination of Schon and the withdrawal of the patent applications. As this IPT article goes to press, the Schon journal articles have not been withdrawn. In the case of a paper about engineered corn in Mexico, Nature unilaterally retracted the paper when Nature felt the evidence available did not justify the paper. (See L. B. Ebert, "Johnson & Johnston: Disclosed, Never Claimed, Public Domain," IPT (May 2002) citing to Mare Kaufman, Washington Post (April 4, 2002). See New York Times, page F4 (Oct. 15, 2002).

also from IPT, "Say Good night, Gracie" (June 2003):

Although there were some allegations that scientific journal editors were not aware of the bad science of Jan Hendrik Schon of Lucent/Bell Labs prior to the unraveling in May 2002, the letter to nature of Paul Solomon of IBM of November 4, 2001, reproduced below, is a counterpoint:


In a letter to Nature by Schon, Meng and Bao (Nature, 413, 713; 2001) the authors present potentially ground breaking results for a new molecular field effect transistor (FET). However, the authors claim without comment or attempt at explanation, long-channel FET characteristics for a very short-channel device structure, in apparent violation of a basic concept of electrostatics, the superposition of electric fields.

The observed currents are several times larger than the best published semiconductor transistors (Figs. 2 and 3), transconductances (Table 1) are orders of magnitude larger than the best semiconductor transistors and rate of drain current increase with gate voltage in the sub-threshold region is several times greater than can be accounted for by thermionic emission theory (inset to Fig. 2). The characteristics of their FETs (Fig. 2) look disarmingly normal, following Shockley's simple gradual channel behavior characteristic of a long-channel FET having a large ratio of channel length to oxide thickness, yet their proposed geometry (fig. 1b) is far from conventional and in fact has a very small channel length to oxide thickness ratio.

The device geometry shown (with 2 benzene rings) would have a source/drain separation of approximately 1.5nm, while the SiO2 thickness is given as 30nm. Even accounting for possible ( 2:1) differences in dielectric constant between the organic film and the SiO2 layer, this is precisely the inverse of the requirement for a long channel FET. For any electrostatic device, from vacuum tube to field effect transistor, a basic requirement for voltage gain is that the gate be able to shield the field-sensitive element (FET channel, molecular transition) from the drain field, so that a change in drain voltage influences the electric field at this sensitive point much less than a change in gate voltage. One cannot satisfy this requirement in the proposed geometry. Indeed, the opposite is true: The source and drain electrodes are so much closer than the gate, that it is hardly conceivable, assuming a pure field effect (whatever the sensitivity to the field), that characteristics such as Fig. 2 could be generated, since the drain-to-source field is so much higher than the gate-to-channel field. Either the output conductance would be very large, or if there is a local, and hitherto unexplained, screening of the drain field, there would also be a strong attenuation of the gate potential preventing the attainment of the standard FET pinch-off (saturation) condition, well evidenced in Fig. 2, where saturation occurs (in a P-FET) when the drain voltage is more negative than the gate voltage less the threshold voltage.

In short, the problem we raise is profound and involves the very basics of our understanding of electrostatic devices. It is a pity the authors did not come up with a plausible explanation for this themselves, or at least comment on the lack of such explanation.

Paul M. Solomon, David J. Frank, Joerg Appenzeller [END LETTER OF NOV. 2001] The letter of Solomon was not published by Nature. Publication would have put scientists on notice of issues with Schon's work, and might have attenuated the misdirection of scientific resources, both public and private, during this time period.


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