Fascinating article in salon.com about the research scandal at Bell Labs. As a Physicst who worked for many years in experimental Physics I find it fascinating, not only because some of the players are former collaborators and friends, but because of the issues it raises about ethics and the high pressure in prestigious labs to produce high quality work permanently.
Briefly, a young rising physicist from Lucent’s Bell Labs Jan Hendrik Schon was producing such high quality work on making switches out of molecular layers, basically making molecular transistors that would be revolutionary.People even thought his work would lead straight to a Nobel Prize. Somebody tipped off my friend Prof. Lydia Sohn from the Princeton Physics Dept. that there were two figures on two different papers with different materials that looked identical. (Down to the little wiggles in the noise). One of the journals was notified, they contacted the author and he said he had made a mistake and sent in the “right” figure. However, another researcher found other duplications up to eight figures in six papers appeared to have duplicate figures which were supposed to be from different materials. The probe has even expanded into the field of superconductivity where Schon has also published some papers.
Bell Labs has convened a committe that it will likely release its report fairly soon. The panel is headed by a former Prof. of mine Mac Beasley who is now at Stanford. The salon.com article also quotes my friend Teun Klapwijk from The Netherlands.
What amazes me the most about this scandal is that I always thought good physicists had the highest standards of ethical conduct when it came down to their data and their interpretation. Even when you got “fantastic” results, you questioned their validity, whether something may be faking you out and you thought of other tests to confirm that what you were seeing was the right effect or interpretation. Moreover, it is also incredible that nobody could reproduce even the most basic effects of the early results, but the Bell Labs team kept publishing new papers almost monthly. We will soon hear from the panel about their conclusions, whatever they may be, I am sure they will add even more integrity to experimental physics, or at least fear…..