Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World
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Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World

3.55 of 5 stars 3.55  ·  rating details  ·  122 ratings  ·  34 reviews
Highly regarded science journalist Eugenie Samuel Reich recounts the case of wunderkind physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, who faked the discovery of a new superconductor at the world famous Bell Laboratories. Many of the world’s top scientific journals and experts, including Nobel Prize-Winners, supported Schön, only to learn that they were the victims of the biggest fraud in s...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published April 27th 2010 by Palgrave Macmillan Trade (first published May 12th 2009)
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Community Reviews

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Beth
If you want to read this like a novel, consider this a SPOILER ALERT. However, since this is non-fiction and the outcome was published in the NYT, I'm going to proceed as though I'm not spoiling anything. The story is really in the details.

This book was fascinating to me in the way a particularly gruesome horror movie, or real life crime story is fascinating. You don't want to look but you can't look away.

Many areas of research, mine included, have physics envy and here is a story of a long ru...more
Daniel R.
This book chronicles the multiple year fraud perpetrated by Jan Hendrik Schon in the scientific community concerning his research around various new materials for transistors and nanotechnology. Unfortunately I found the bias of the author that the scientific method doesn't work as stated in the introduction tainted the rest of the material. Instead of laying out the facts and letting the reader draw their own conclusions about the scope and validity of the scientific method the book at times fe...more
Chris
Scientific fraud was perpetrated at Bell Labs - the personality, pressures and environment that created and enabled the fraud to spread to the pages of the august journals "Science" & "Nature" is discussed. The question is posed, "is science self-correcting?". The author provides the answer as "yes", but notes that the corrections are made by scientists that do not take science's self-correcting nature for granted. Excellent case-study in ethical conduct of scientific research.
Alger
Entirely unreadable. This book attempts to be a comprehensive history of science fraud framed around the career of a single Bell Labs researcher. Instead this is a confused muddle of repetitive (yet unsupported) claims that Shoën did untold damage to physics and the reputation of science, yet fails to demonstrate that he was anything other than a competent liar with a short career of deception.

Reich is a writer prone to garbled phrases, messy chapters, hyperbole, and demonstrates a novice's conc...more
Alicia
I think this is the nerdiest book I have ever read. Ever. Mostly because it deals with a LOT of physics and the explanation of experiments and materials used. Organic crystals, sputtering machines, pentacene crystals and particles changing from p-type to n-type (just to name a few). And this book is about 45-50% physics explanations. But it has to be, because it's about fraud that can be carried out in the scientific world.

The author makes a good point: Science is self-regulating. If someone mak...more
Josh
This book describes how Jan Hendrick Shön duped the scientific world with his supposed advances in organic semi-conductors. Schön fabricated data to support a wide variety of very interesting and groundbreaking experimental observations. Some have claimed that his eventual discovery as a fraud shows the power of science to correct itself; others have claimed that he went undetected far too long and that this raises troubling questions about science's ability to self-correct. Some interesting poi...more
David
Science writer's recap of how a young German physicist working at Bell Labs fooled his scientific community with claims of remarkable breakthroughs. For about 2 years in the early '00's, he was the rising star, publishing at a rapid clip in Science, Nature, etc. until being exposed as a fraud. Others' inability to replicate his findings, and his own vague responses to requests for more technical details of his methods that might facilitate a better understanding of the nonreplications, aroused s...more
Megan
Bench research is full of urban legends. I have worked in five different labs in three states, and at each one I have heard some variation of the following things:
1. Someone's cousin, like, totally DIED when they didn't balance the centrifuge and the rotor, like, FLEW out of there like that weapon, I forget what it's called, that Xena threw around? In her show? The Xena Show? So, like, BALANCE the FUGE.
2. My advisor's brother worked with a grad student who totally sneezed on a plate when he was...more
Alex
Despite the author's somewhat uneven style, and despite the fact that some background in electronics and/or condensed matter physics certainly helps to make sense of what exactly Dr. Schoen did and what he did wrong, this story is one of the more poignant and thought-provoking bits of non-fiction I've read lately. Yes, scientists know how to deal with honest errors. They know an ambitious crank when they see one. But how could a regular guy, just trying to keep his job (as he understood it) do s...more
Scott
This is a book about Jan Hendrik Schön, a post-doc at Bell Labs who went on a tear in 1999-2002 making extraordinary claims to have experimentally realized many quantum devices using an organic crystal substrate. His work was so prodigious, and every paper seemed to open a new frontier in physics. Unfortunately, it was all a sham, as Schön faked his data and his experiments.

While the plot line is compelling as a true-to-life story, so much more could have been done with this book that I'm left...more
John Tessitore
Anyone who has spent any time in academia will recognize Reich's portrait of a fraudster: "a logical, intelligent and literal-minded student who fits the profile of a solid graduate, but who isn't quite brilliant, who doesn't quite 'get it.'" It's the portrait of the vast majority of scholars one meets. in the sciences and the humanities alike. Similarly, her description of Hendrik Schon's "gift for agreeing with others while disguising his contrivance to do so" strikes a familiar note for anyon...more
AJ
This is truly a fascinating book that should be required reading for people getting PhDs in the physical sciences. Sure, forgery is (hopefully) exceedingly rare, but many issues of research ethics can be brought forth in this book, such as: How repeatable must an experiment be before you can claim that it is a success? Is it ever appropriate for a researcher to delete data points? What kind of disclosures should be made for data that has been fitted?

Scientists are generally an exceedingly skepti...more
Mike Barnett
Really interesting book about the capacity of humans to be fooled, particularly by themselves. I don't agree with the reactions that some people seem to have to the book that says that the author doesn't believe science is self-correcting. My take on it (perhaps I'm reading this into what the author says) is that it is self-correcting *only* if scientists take seriously their responsibility to make it so instead of relying on it to be that way somehow without their personal involvement.
Michael
I give it four stars for the amount of research done by Reich. However, there were several things that bugged me about the book. First and foremost, there were many many typos. Secondly, Reich's retelling of the story bounced all over time. I wasn't sure what Reich was choosing to use as his narrative underline, but it wasn't in chronological order. Finally, there was minimal closure. What is Schon doing now? How is he still employed in science despite his frauds? What are his collaborators doin...more
Brian
This is a book about a physicist who falsified data in order to rise to once of the more successful careers in scientific research until he got caught. What cracked me up was how, in typical academic fashion, people who had nothing to do with his work (like his boss) were all too happy to include their name on his papers and patent applications, yet they never checked his work and, while the fraud has been banished by the scientific community, all the others that encouraged and allowed his fraud...more
Maksym Sladkov
The dark side of science. Overall, very entertaining read. Despite a little bit too enthusiastic attempt to make the story of Schon more thrilling than it was, it is actually the life of others, the history of the Bell labs and its role in the world on innovation and references to the history of science and culture of peer-review publication system that I've enjoyed the most. The only critique - as a physicist myself I've found the description of underlying physics quite accurate and adequate to...more
Charlotte Sanders
This is an interesting exploration of fraud: on one hand, the motivations and methods of the person who commits large-scale fraud, and on the other hand, the way a community reacts to the possibility of fraud by one of it's members. I did not always find the author's critique of the scientific community to be entirely just. However, since reading the book I have really become much more cautious about record-keeping, and aware of the share of responsibility that attaches to all members of a colla...more
Robert
interesting book of a modern scientific fraud. And very curious that cataloged/shelved as a Biography.

The style was interesting and not one I am used to - often revisiting an aspect of the relatively short period of time involed from a different direction.
But worked for me - I fely I understodod Schon somewhat, and how this fraud came to past.

Aside: I was remotely involved - as a librarian at bell labs; as such knew of some of the activities after
the fraud came out. So was persoannly if intere...more
Amar Pai
Riveting tale of scientific fraud. Riveting if you're into that kind of thing, anyway. The book could have done with some editing... I lost track of how many times she used the phrase "Schön's disgrace," but it surely must have numbered in the 100's... but overall this is a well reported tale of what happens when someone games the system. As some other reviewer said, it reads somewhat like a thriller & feels like one of those movies where you know the whole time something terrible's gonna ha...more
Bellish
This was an interesting story: a mixture of character study and exploration of the process of whistle-blowing in science. I probably would have preferred a bit more scientific explanation in it, mainly because I know very little about this field, but I appreciate that might detract from readability for some others.

Sad to say this, but this book could have done with better editing. I hope the many errors are corrected in future versions. That the writer's style was fine, but far from excellent, d...more
Heather Buelow
The topic of Plastic Fantastic is very interesting, but I was not impressed with the narration. The writing style was sophomoric at times, and the work is riddled with careless typos - about one every 30-40 pages. Even so, the story itself is compelling enough to keep a reader turning the pages. I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants to know the tale of this outrageous streak of fraud in physics, but not to anyone looking for a well-composed work.
Ko Matsuo
The story of Hendrik Schon, who dazzled the scientific world with his advances in superconductivity, plastic transistors, and nanotechnology, culminating in the discovery that his data was faked. The tragedy is that we as a society have become so numbers and achievement oriented while being so busy, that it took years of wasted time of many scientists attempting to replicate Schon's results before the fraud was exposed.
Brynna
I picked this up because there was a copy lying around among the textbooks on the shelves in the lab I work in. All scientific graduate students should read this book as a cautionary tale. A very frightening story of how utterly easy it is to compromise the principles of scientific work. I read this as I was working on a paper and it scared me into triple-checking everything.
Irene
A very shocking book about a scientist that published an enormous amount of papers in very high-profile journals, and then it turned out he made it all up! Shocking for me was mostly that it can take that long to discover it, and how many outstanding scientists were fooled by his claims. A book every student considering a career in science should be obliged to read.
Joe Fowler
A careful and really exciting story of a physicist getting ahead in the world by completely fabricating all of his interesting results. There's no single answer, but the overall question is whether the scope of one man's four-year fraud proves that science works at catching errors, or that it doesn't.
Taylor
If you are interested in how some of the scientific world conducts research and publishes, and how it could be abused, this is definitely worth a read. Would have liked more focus on the principal scientist involved in the fraud, but since he wouldn't talk with the author, that wasn't possible.
Robert
This book freaked me out--I knew all these people at Bell Labs, except for Hendrik Schoen. It's amazing what the drive to succeed will drive people to do; I would have liked a little more about the psychology of Schoen.
Mkovarik
Great book for anyone in the sciences I think! It was fascinating to read about how the fraud escalated, how the scientific community deals with fraud, etc, and I could definitely relate to the kind of social order described....
Pito Salas
Learn a lot about how Science is done by learning a major bit of Science fraud. Helped me understand the combative scientific personality, the peer review process, and the history of all that.
Hom Sack
A detailed account of the scandal but offers little insight into the psychology of Schön A worthwhile read nevertheless.
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