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

Eugenie Samuel Reich
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 12, 2009 0230224679 978-0230224674 1

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?

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Reich, a former editor at New Science, unravels the absorbing story of Jan Hendrik Schön, a researcher at the prestigious Bell Laboratories from 1998 to 2002, who achieved star status in cutting-edge materials technology-super-conductivity, lasers, nanotechnology-by falsifying data. A graduate of Germany's "low key" University of Konstanz, he dove immediately into "a demanding environment... known for big discoveries, ambitious expectations." When his papers on experiments with organic crystals were rejected, he manipulated data and made false claims; publication followed. When the tech bubble burst, Bell came under increasing pressure from parent company Lucent to justify its existence; short-circuiting the normal process of peer review, the lab turned to public relations, "press-releasing exciting scientific findings" to fool investors, customers and Lucent into believing Bell had "a sound long-term technological future." Reich's clear explanation gives general readers a real sense of the excitement generated in the scientific community by Schön's "discoveries," how he made them appear credible and how his ability to dissemble eventually failed him; he also raises profound ethical questions that resonate with current concerns over science and its place in the public sphere.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Reich recounts the read-it-to-believe-it saga of physicist Hendrik Schön. At Bell Labs in the late 1990s, Schön’s apparent discoveries about atomic-scale devices called field-effect transistors earned him a stellar peer-group reputation—until his research was exposed as faked in 2002. While science’s self-correcting mechanism did dissolve Schön’s deceptions, its failure to catch the frauds sooner motivates Reich’s tenacious pursuit of the story. Along with failures in the peer-review process of journals like Science and Nature, which published some of Schön’s papers, Reich found a propensity within Bell Labs to believe Schön’s results, which, had they been real, could have commercially benefited the home of the original, macroscale transistor. Another crucial factor that Reich develops was Schön’s ability to allay tough questions with revised data, though when he began to manipulate and outright invent data remains mysterious, for on that he eluded Reich, too. Nevertheless, Reich’s journalistic persistence and technical thoroughness yield a largely complete, often dramatic account of Schön’s roguery and downfall. --Gilbert Taylor

Product Details

  • Series: Macmillan Science
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan; 1 edition (May 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230224679
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230224674
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #715,765 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
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.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars how about a photo of Schon ? June 30, 2009
I read this book with interest because I used to be in condensed matter physics. Tangentially, we dealt with Bell Labs, which was indeed one of the best places for research in this field. It is unusual to see a book like this, presumably directed at a general audience. The level of physics detail is not what is typically offered.

The sociology of research, and specifically in this field of physics, can be fascinating. Grad students and researchers in many sciences should be able to relate to the happenings here.

As far as a rogue researcher in a large group being able to fabricate results, this is not unknown. Especially when the group leader doesn't have the time to parse everyone's work in detail. A similar event happened in molecular biology in Lee Hood's group at Caltech in the 90s. Though no book was written about it.

The problem with the current book is the paucity of diagrams and photos. Not a single photo of Schon! Why is that? Surely some must exist. Perhaps from Bell Labs publicity shots before the scandal broke. Or even from their archived web pages. For example, I just searched on the web, and found a photo of him from Wired. Reich or her publisher should have provided some image. Ironically, the book is heavily footnoted, not unlike a research journal article. So there has been no lack of research done on it.

By the way, you should ignore the subtitle about "shaking the scientific world". Even within physics, I doubt if the high energy or nuclear folks were much shook up. Instead, they probably looked at it in curiosity, just like other scientists.

The book describes how data is collected these days in labs. By computerised instruments, and thence written to files. I wonder.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing, disturbing, compulsive reading May 21, 2009
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good book, but missing the broader perspective... February 23, 2012
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!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars I like it
It is an excellent book.
It is very easy to read and comprehensive.
I like it, I recommend this book.
Published 2 months ago by Motrin
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but less significant than the title would indicate
I read the occasional popular science book and have purchased several books on frauds of various kinds, so this book popped up under my Amazon recommendations. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Hal Jordan
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
This is a great read. It fully describes the events leading up to the discovery of the fraud. It amazes me how bold this guy is and how no-one picked up on it sooner.
Published 13 months ago by michelle
4.0 out of 5 stars It is a very well written book
I highly recommend this book to everyone who wants to learn more about history of fraud in science, starting from days of Sir Isaac Newton and culminating in Jan Hendrik Schon's... Read more
Published on September 23, 2011 by Dr. Michael J. Storek
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended
This book is not only very entertaining but also an excellent description of the pressure that early career scientist feel to publish large quantities of high impact papers if they... Read more
Published on February 6, 2011 by RC
5.0 out of 5 stars Life as it is
This is a fascinating story about a real and quite sad event. Very well written, it is a book on how dangerous and expensive life can be whenever people do not function as they... Read more
Published on December 21, 2010 by Washington B. Filho
4.0 out of 5 stars Plastic Fantastic
I saw an adaptation of this book on cable and going by the maxim never judge a book by its movie I ordered the book. Read more
Published on May 17, 2010 by M. Murphy
1.0 out of 5 stars Kindle price is HIGHER than paperback!
I have a complaint about the Kindle price. $14.82 for a book already in paperback for $11.56? Sheesh.
Published on February 11, 2010 by Pito Salas
4.0 out of 5 stars An important and engaging book on scientific fraud
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? Read more
Published on October 31, 2009 by Dan B
5.0 out of 5 stars Should be required reading for scientists
Reich does a great job explaining how Hendrik Schon was able to perpetrate the biggest [...]in physics history, duping the folks at Science, Nature and seemingly every prize... Read more
Published on August 26, 2009 by BMM
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