Scott's Reviews > Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World

Plastic Fantastic by Eugenie Samuel Reich
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's review
Sep 01, 2009

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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 disappointed. The circumstances of Schön's deception lend themselves to a deeper discussion of deliberate fraud in science. While Eugenie Samuel Reich does delve a little into the history of scientific fraud, including citation of Charles Babbage's "Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on some of its Causes," she does not engage in any critical thought on the subject, to the extent that she only superficially glosses over what has been written about such fraud in the past, but adds no insight to this discussion. What could have been more philosophically meaningful turns out to be the equivalent of a police procedural about scientific fraud, and an opportunity missed.

The author does not acknowledge any editor, and by the condition of the text I assume that one was not utilized. Especially in the last two chapters there are numerous, obvious spelling errors (e.g. "fraus" for "fraud") and examples of awkward, misleading grammar in sentence construction. A good editor may have also insisted that the author more clearly lay out the time frame and the characters so that the narrative could be more simply followed.

Even with these shortcomings, the book has merit for the lay reader interested in reading a description of how a young, naive scientist managed to pull the wool over the eyes of those who should have known better for nearly three years. The book asks the question Why did Schön not get caught sooner, and I wish I had more insight into that question myself. Unfortunately, Ms. Smith's book delivers little more than platitudes about the motivations and substance underneath the narrative's surface.

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