Place: Gastein, Austria.
Time: July, 2000.
Occasion: International Conference on 'Synthetic Metals'
A scientist from the famous Bell Labs presents a plenary lecture in which he shows that his group has achieved such phenomenal results within the past few months that most scientists all over the world would be more than happy to have got over their entire lifetime. He had published a few breakthrough publications in the famous journals 'Nature' and 'Science' in the months leading to the meeting; but those who listened to his talk forgot to breath for a few secs - such were the kinds of results. In the next few months, that group published an astonishing number of papers - some 40 + - an average of one paper every 8 days.
They won several awards, including the 'Best Presentation' in the conference, the Science magazine's 'Top 10 discoveries of the year 2000' and so on. I was one of those who attended his lecture and I could sense that it was something big.. The leading scientist was touted to be a strong contender for the Nobel prize in the next 3-4 years. In short, the results were ground-breaking in the area of materials science. Some of you might be aware of the Moore's law (which states that the no. of transistors in a square area of a chip would double every 18 months); it has been surprisingly valid so far but it has the danger of running out by the turn of the next decade. At that time, transistors being run by a 'single molecule' are required.. The Bell lab scientists had already claimed to have achieved it, 10 years before the 'deadline'!!
A very famous biologist from South Korea, Prof. Hwang is well-known for his 'cloning' work. He is as famous in Korea as Dr. Abdul Kalam was/is in India.. He was projected as 'Korea's face to the world', the 'Hope of Korea' etc. Some of you might be aware of the controversial 'stem cell' research. (Stem cells are taken from a fertilized human egg in the first few days after pregnancy; scientists have strong hope for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease on stem cells.) He published a paper in 'Science' in 2004 that he could create clones from the stem cells.
A few months later, he became the first one to clone a dog, 'Snuppy'. In 2005, he published another break-through paper that he could form individual, person-specific 'cell-lines' from the clones taken from the stem cells.. to put it simply, it would mean that, for a person suffereing from a particular disease, the doctors can monitor another 'clone' in which the disease is slowly developing.. Thus, it would give a better idea on the medication required. His results were also ground-breaking; and he was a strong contender for the Nobel Prize.
What happened next?
Several groups were interested in the results, they tried to do similar experiments in their labs; but failed to reproduce the Bell lab's results. The word started spreading around. One scientist found that figures from different publications of the group, on different subjects, were identical; so much that even the 'noise' was the same.. By 2002, the concern was a major one and everyone started to view the results with suspicion. The Bell labs had to appoint a committee to check the validity of the papers. When the committee approached the main scientist, he directed them to 'the one' post-doctoral student, who was the person to have done all the experiments himself.
That guy was a German, Dr. Hendrich Schon, who did the experiments partly at Bell labs, USA and partly in his Ph.D. university in Germany. The committee was in for a shock when they interviewed him.. 1) He didnt maintain any lab notebooks
2) He erased all data from the computer because the computer in Bell labs didnt have 'sufficient memory'.
3) He was the only one to have ever 'seen' those results.. he hasnt shown any of the phenomenon to his boss or to his colleagues.
4) He said that he had 'too many results' that it is possible that some of the figures could have been jumbled up in different papers
5) He accepted that he 'generated some graphs' using programs so that 'they look nice as desired'.
The committee was in rude shock at his remarks and after a thorough inquiry, held him responsible for 'manufacturing' results and 'modifying' them. He was fired from Bell labs; all the papers were 'retracted' from the journals; his PhD. university took away his Ph.D. degree (though his dissertation was apparently clean and undisputed); but the committee left his co-workers, including the boss free, saying that though they could and should have verified the results, they were not at fault. The head scientist resigned from Bell labs and started his career as a Professor in ETH, Zurich, Switzerland.
It came as a huge shock to all of us, who work in the area of materials science.. What to trust and what not to.. The irony of this is that, still there are papers which continue to 'cite' those disputed and retracted papers.
At first, there were concerns about the source of the 'eggs' which Dr. Hwang used. Ethically, it is considered wrong to pay for getting them, bcos the process of removing egg from a woman's ovary is a painful process.. Dr. Hwang said all the eggs he got were from volunteers, who came willing to assist in the breakthrough scientific experiment. Later, two female members of his group told a Korean TV that they donated eggs. It became clear later that Dr. Hwang 'advertised' for want of eggs and paid big money as compensation to the donors. This created a controversy bcos it proved that Dr. Hwang lied about the source of the eggs.
Also, other groups in the world could not reproduce his results so the shadows of doubt fell on his work too. A committee was formed by the university to investigate the matter. They too found that the results were fake; several fotos published in the paper were wrong and duplicated from elsewhere.. One of the co-authors accepted that Dr. Hwang asked him to 'make-up' some fotos.. Dr. Hwang retracted both his papers. The committee, however, said that his dog-cloning work was real. His lab is sealed now and he is facing prosecution..