Physics panel discusses Schon case

The story of J. Hendrik Schon, a Lucent Technologies and Bell Laboratories physicist fired after allegations of scientific misconduct, was the subject of discussion for a lively informal panel held Monday by the Department of Applied Physics.

“This is an unprecedented phenomenon of scientific misconduct — nothing like this has happened in at least 50 years,” Applied Physics Chairman Douglas Stone said.

Stone was one of four panelists who shed light on the details of the Schon story for an audience consisting mainly of faculty and graduate students. The other panelists were physics professor Michel Devoret; Dan Ralph, a visiting professor from Cornell University; and Jim Reiner, a postdoctoral fellow in applied physics.

“It’s also an amazing story — when you lay out the chronology it looks extremely strange,” Stone added.

The allegations against Schon, a high-profile scientist who did research in condensed-matter physics at the prestigious Bell Labs from 1998 to 2002, were drawn from papers authored by Schon and others. Within the first few months of 2002 there were open discussions in the scientific community about the possibility of fraud in Schon’s experiments, which no one had been able to independently reproduce in the laboratory, panelists said.

“This was not a clever fraud,” said Ralph, who gave a detailed presentation on many of the allegations against Schon. Ralph showed slides of suspicious data and graphs — including identical graphs generated from different experiments — many of which elicited laughter from the audience.

Ralph described himself as initially unaware of the Schon case, but said he later became involved in collecting much of the proof against Schon.

“I learned about this mainly through people barging into my office, waving papers at me and saying, ‘Can you believe this stuff got published?'” Ralph said.

In September Schon was found to have committed scientific misconduct in 16 out of 24 final allegations made against him. According to the report of an independent committee put together by Bell Labs to investigate Schon, the final allegations involved substitution of data, unrealistic precision of data, and results that contradicted known physics. The co-authors of the papers in question, including Schon’s principal co-author, Bertram Batlogg, were all completely cleared of scientific misconduct.

Ultimately Schon admitted altering his data, but he said that all of the observed effects in his experiments were real.

The effect of Schon’s conduct on science as a whole was the focal point of a lengthy discussion following the panel’s presentation. Audience members and panelists alike called for a greater sense of the importance of scientific responsibility.

“This data was coming out of Bell Labs, the temple of American physics,” Devoret said. “You have to realize that the Nobel Prize Committee was actually considering Hendrik Schon and Bertram Batlogg for the Nobel Prize.”

“If [data] only exists on your own laptop computer and no one can see it in the lab, then it doesn’t exist,” Devoret added.

Stone also emphasized that the views expressed in the discussion did not necessarily represent those of the Yale scientific community.

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