Feb 2, 2006

Tale of two scientists


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..


Paurna said...

didnt know about the german scientist but did read a lot bout dr hwang.it was really saddening.i for one support stem cell research.though i don't know much bout it,from what i have read about it on the net and in books i feel it has the potential to treat several incurable diseases.stem cell is already quite controversial and such actions wud only strengthen the antagonists.i wud only wish that scientists irrespective of their field of study are a bit more patient and pragmatic and not indulge in sensationalism.that job IMHO only belongs to the media

raz said...

i was keenly watching the development abt the stem cell research in the media, and read about all the article which talked abt stem cell research in india... but never had an idea abt the international scientist.. this is a very sad state but this is what most scientist do for fame for them money is not a criteria

Vijay Ramamurthi said...

haha..I am keenly following the second one...the korean stem cell debacle..man
that guy was given the status of national hero, in Korea..a couple of professors were invlolved fromt the US,
massive Indian movie style drama, like he cried in television and all

The first case is pretty interesting though..we have team that has been working the same area..i presume they are called "quantum dots",?? not sure..
i found it extremely interesting where therell be only one electron moving from source to drain, which ll drastically reduce the size and other leakage occuring in MOSFET.

Probably I shudnt say this, but I think the whole concept of peer reviewing of papers be it anonymous should be revamped...I mean one classic case that happens in a very popular conference[i am not telling where, i might create controversy], is u send a paper, it gets rejected [now thats whole new story] and boom the idea is stolen..

THe whole concept that established profs always publish good papers is a crap opinion.
I am not a great researcher or any thing, but I have seen enuf of my papers rejected for _JUNK_ reasons..

Sorry if i moved away from the topic

Raju said...

Paurna, mm.. looks like Dr. Hwang's case is already in mainstream news, probably due to its impact. Stem cell research is controversial since orthodox people connect it with cloning.
Publishing one-time wonderous, irreproducible results is one thing.. publishing 'fake and non-existent' results is far more fraudulent and hence condemnable.. Glad I got trained to always look out for those kinds of 'exciting' results in my work and make sure that they are reproducible and I get some explanation for them..
Raz, nice to have company to discuss such matters.. When I wrote about it, I thought I am introducing this subject to you all.. :-)

Stem cell research is an advanced one and quite complicated. I dont know whether anyone in India is equipped enough to carry it. I need to check it out. this is what most scientist do for fame for them money is not a criteria hey.. plz dont generalize this.. bcos I am also one of those 'scientists'.. :-)
Vijay, you are spot on.. yes.. that guy was hailed as the national hero. One US prof. each was involved in both the papers and after singing praise for Dr. Hwang when everything alright, they disowned him when the controversy arose. mm.. I also read that he cried in TV..

Interesting to know that you are into the processor design.. Some of Schon's work was indeed close to the 'quantum dot' phenomenon, though I would call them 'Organic quantum dot'. You are right.. In a most-surprising, among the first-scrutinized works of Schon was this FET he claimed to have made, using a single fullerene (bucky ball, C60) between the source and drain.. That created maximum interest among scientific community when it was published and was projected as the savior of Moore's law.

About peer reviewing, I know it has several holes.. But IMHO, that seems to be the best among the worsts.. I have also seen instances of stolen ideas after the rejection of one paper..

To establish, one needs good papers.. after establishment, almost everything he produces is good... it is a vicious cycle.. Sometimes some profs enjoy the adulation and tend to misuse it in 'pushing' some low-quality papers..

I agree with you on junk reasons for paper rejections.. It has happened to me and other colleagues of mine too.. Sometimes a good paper from the 'Third world country' receives unduly bad respect.. :-(

NaiKutti said...

yeah, these have been bltatant cases of fraud (for lack of better word) practices... but there are many more research papers which do produce high quality work but they skew the connclusions in their favor... and this kinds misleads others... and of course, the fault in this case lies on the paper authors' AND the paper readers...

but i don't think there could be a better way of peer reviewing journals and as us say this may be the best amongst worst we have.... there was a recent article on natire about this: here it is... (Nature, v439, pp 520-521, Feb 2006)

Nag said...

i think the only way to punish these kind of people is making them infamous by wide publicity and ofcourse retracking papers and their awards!

raz said...

sorry scientist... next time i wont generalize... but i sill stand on my words.. most of them do and there is a place called chitrathirunal in kerala i heard they are doing research in it, i have visited them , and also a lab in kolkatta, if all goes well , 3 -5 yrs down the lane we will also be into it!

Raju said...

Karthik, mmm.. universities and governments have to make strict rules that severely punish such offenders.. On skewing the conclusions, yeah.. it happens at times.. Some publish only the 'good-looking' figures that suit their conclusions.. In some schools in US, there is a course on 'Ethics in Science practice' which many science students are urged to take.. These are all the ones 'that go without saying'.. but some need to be preached..

I am pleasantly surprised at the Nature paper you referred to.. I read it just a few days ago and was shocked to find an Indian doctor's case in it.. I thought you people in IT/Software jobs dont get to read journals.. This post has changed some of my self-inflicted myths.. And, that paper makes some interesting reading.. With most of the high-profile journals being run by 'Non-Profit organizations', it would be hard to devise a method to crack the defaulters..
Nag, now, who has to make them infamous? In case of Dr. Hwang, a Korean TV took up this issue, since it realized that it can get viewership by exposing a 'national hero'. The journals do write editorials and other News on such cases so the scientific community gets a chance to read it; by and large for the common public, these things get unnoticed.
Raz, its OK.. you are free to stick to your opinions.. :-)

I have heard of Chithirathirunal Institute.. didnt realize that they are advanced enough to carry out stem cell research.. as you said, 3-5 years.. I thought Manipal Institute and AIIMS were good medical schools.. I dont know where the appropriate scientists are.. Hope we make an impression in this field..

Vijay Ramamurthi said...

The chitrathirunal institure/chitra institute of medical sciences is attached to the Trivandum medical college..it is a premier research institute...they along with the TTK industries where the first in India to produce the artificial heart valve...not sure if they have stem cell research and all..

actually there are a bunch of med research institutes in Trivandrum..all marred with controversies...

one is chitra, other RCC regional cancer center..they collaborate with John Hopikins, they were accused to using third world patients un tested drugs...

In this new age we lack a strong and effective research policy guidelines..
in this day age where med research is coming up big time in India..this is a must.

Vijay Ramamurthi said...

Felt like answering naikuttis comment on skewing the results, deliberately portraying them
in their favor.. there are a few reasons for that..
one is sheer pressure to publish..so any results be it good or bad is published..

the other one is ...thats how pubs work..people portray the work as a giant leap for mankind..for all that matters, it might be a natural corollery of the experiment!!!! I have seen this happen quite often

aruna said...

I have heard about the stem cell controversies, but the bell labs story is something new...And the sad thing is that there are hundreds of such papers floating around and people are still refering them for their work !! btw, Good post !!

Me too said...

Have heard about the Korean Scientist. What all can the magic words 'Success' and 'Fame' do to even highly educated people! I am reminded of our 'Ramar Pillai' case!

Raju said...

Vijay, thanks for the info on Chithirai Thirunal..
Yeah, it is high time we make clear and strict rules on biomedical research and clinical trials in India.. it is a very sensitive issue..

About the pressure on publishing, yes... a scientist is judged on what he/she publishes, so publications have become the scale of assessment.
Any new paper, by default and according to the accepted rule, has to have something 'new'. How much it would improve our knowledge of a subject will decide its source of publication. There have been several baby-steps in the recent past, no giant-leap for quite sometime..
Aruna, there are hundreds of such papers.. but not many have been retracted.. despite being retracted, they do stay on the already published articles in libraries as hard-copies, right? That leads to some unaware researchers to refer them and even the referees miss it.. Unless all the publications become purely electronic with continuous update (feedback), this will continue to happen..
Aparna, my research supervisor used to say "there is no short-cut in science".. Pity that even big-shots forgot about it and sought quick ways..

Sandhya Tenneti said...


liked your section on science. I had heard about the south korean case but not abt the german.

small request..can you perhaps profile more scientists\cases like you have in this section? would help increase the general knowledge of bloggers who are not involved or clued in the scientific arena..thanks!!