Category Archives: Random thoughts
Another year is almost done and as I write my annual report I realize this year has had several milestones for me as a researcher, most of which got recorded in this blog.
I published three papers in peer reviewed journals, one of which actually made the cover of J. Inclusion Phenomena, the other two were published in J. Phys. Chem. C and Eur. J. Inorg. Chem.; two more papers are currently under the reviewing process, one of which is further down the line in a journal whose title I dare not speak for fear of jinxing it! A small article on computational chemistry basics, entitled “Chemistry without Flasks” for a magazine edited by the National Council for Research and Technology (CONACyT) was also published early this year; during the summer we had the visit of quite a few internship students who got gather some data despite my absence; my more regular students, Maru and Howard presented one poster each at the National Congress of Chemistry organized by the Mexican Chemical Society, and Howard also presented another poster at the Mexican Reunion of Theoretical Physical Chemistry; Maru wrote and defended her thesis in May, which makes her the first student ever to graduate from my research group; I participated once again as a juror of the Mexican Science and Engineering Fair; and last but not least I got a promotion at the National System of Researchers (SNI).
New immediate challenges lie ahead and I shall face them rationally and passionately.
These are small accomplishments for larger research groups, I know, but I’m truly happy to see how our combined efforts, along with the support of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the Institute of Chemistry, are slowly paying off! One can only hope the growth curve is not linear but exponential.
Thanks to every reader who has interacted with me through this blog; thanks for your comments, ratings, sharing and ‘likes’. May you all have a happy holiday season, winter break or New Year party, whatever it is you get to do these days!
About a month ago my wife and I got invited by our good friend Dr. Ruperto Fernandez (his PhD is in transport logistics and engineering) to his final presentation for a course in managerial skills he’d taken for over six months, and while I wasn’t all that thrilled about waking up at 8 AM on a Saturday, I went to cheer my good friend and show him my sleepy support. His presentation dealt with negotiations and the required skills to master them, and while he agreed that there is a huge amount of talent involved in being a good negotiator, he also pointed out that some basic knowledge of the procedure can go a long way in helping us with little to no talent in achieving the best possible outcome. Basically, a negotiation involves the agreement between a person with something which another person wants; meeting both parties expectations at the fullest extent possible is the ideal endpoint for an iterative give-and-take between them. Or so it goes.
Recently a scandal that involved the biology freelance blogger DNLee, who blogs for Scientific American with the column The Urban Scientist. DNLee was asked by Biology-Online.org to write for them. Then the negotiation started; she had something the editors wanted: her texts. She agreed to do it and waived her fee (second part of the negotiation process: “I got what you want and here is what I ask in return for it“), instead of having an offer made (third part of the negotiation process: “ok, that is what you want but this is what I can give you“) the blogger got a nasty message, which I believe maybe was intended to elicit a response to better accommodate the editor’s demands but that was nothing more than a plain nasty insult: The editor asked if she was the urban scientist or the urban whore (end of negotiation; nobody got anything. Furthermore, feelings were hurt, reputations questioned and the door for future negotiations between both parties was shut completely). If the editor was unable to pay any fee at all then the editor should have tried to convince the blogger of participating for free; I would have offered her a bigger space than a regular blogger, or maybe even invited her to participate as an editor. I’m not sure they have some sort of business model but something could have been arranged. Had this negotiation not met at any point in the middle then a polite thank you could have left the door open for a future time. DNLee has a reputation that allows her to waive her fee, had it been me, I’d probably had done it for free but because I need more exposure than her who is already famous. Internet support came promptly and hard as can be seen here and here, not that it wasn’t called for, of course!
But the issue, sadly, didn’t end there, DNLee wrote about this in her blog at SciAm, but the post was later on deleted by the editors. Dr. Mariette DiChristina tweeted that the post wasn’t related to science so it didn’t fit in the site. Pressure in blogs and other social networks prompted SciAm to place the article back on the site. Click here to go to the post.
Calling someone a whore is simply unacceptable.
During his presentation, my friend Dr. Ruperto Fernandez, talked about a negotiation he had with a potential employer. According to his account of the process, it ended quite swiftly when he was offered a much lower salary than the one he currently earns. He said the offer had some good points that could have made him accept even 5 to 10% less income respect to his current salary, but much less than that would not help him cover the bills and that was a total deal-breaker. But the talk didn’t end there, some other joint projects were laid for them to work on together and the door is still open for the future when they may be able to match my friend’s expectations as biology-online should have done with DNLee.
It has been a rough couple of weeks for the Scientific American community; first this and now the leaving of a great science writer, Bora Zivcovic whose misconduct has forced his exit out of the popular magazine. So now the aftermath for both issues remains to be seen. Sexism, though could be found to be a common denominator in both cases: one was a victim of it, the other one is guilty of inflicting it through various instances of sexual harassment. Should this mean that biology-online, Bora Zivcovic and the affiliated-to-the-two-previous parties, the Scientific American Magazine, are to be deemed as unworthy? I hardly think so. None of us is close to sanctity and we all make mistakes, some of them willingly and other unwillingly but we are accountable for each and every one of them but we should also be able to separate both sides of each story and keep the best of each side while keeping a close eye (and even a loud mouth) about the wrong in each side.
I wish nothing but the best to every person involved in any of these recent events. Why is it so hard for people to just ‘play nice‘? I’ve heard many times this world would be a better place if we cared more for each other, but sometimes it seems that its actually the opposite; that this world would be be better if we didn’t care so much: if we didn’t care about the color of our skin; our gender; our nationality or ethnicity; our sexual orientation; our social status. This brings me back yet again to that presentation by Dr. Fernandez, where he was asked to describe the way he was perceived by others at his workplace and he said he didn’t quite enjoy social interactions so he is perceived as serious and aloof but was always willing to join a new project, so when reached out for one of these he’s all smiles and work. Shouldn’t we all back off a little bit from each other from time to time?
RealTimeChem, in its first week-long edition, is coming to your Twitter feed next Monday April 22nd 2013, and I for one intend to participate.
I look forward to this event in order to get in touch with other chemists, not only theoretical but experimental ones as well, around the world sharing a passion for chemistry and technology. I guess most of the participants will be experimental chemists who will amaze us with their videos and pictures of cool looking reactions; I hope we, here at our computational lab, are up to the challenge with our calculations.
Participating is really simple, just Tweet as little or as much as you want to share about your work or studies around chemistry under the #RealTimeChem hastag and follow @RealTimeChem. There is also a group and an event set up on Facebook, check those out too. As I write this, its Friday at 8:oo PM and I’m still in the office, which means I have a lot of work to do, therefore I don’t feel like writing about all the details of the event, specially when others have done so in a much more eloquently fashion: Check out these posts (as well as the entire content of their blogs, they’re very cool!) by Dr. Galactic and The Organic Solution for all the details about the event’s mechanics and, yes, even prizes to the best tweets.
So get on board and tweet all week long under the #RealTimeChem hashtag and share your work with the world the way no journal will ever do: in real time and with the uttermost embarrassing methodology honesty.
If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then wasting a collective mind is an even more terrible thing. During the past weekend the library at the institute of chemistry suffered a flood caused by a broken pipe just above it, which incidentally happens to be the lab were I used to work as an undergrad student. When it comes to scientific journals, our institute still relies a lot on paper issues for the oldest numbers; we can order them online but it’s just easier to Xerox it at the library if you really need to read that old reference.
This morning the librarians were appalled when noticed not only the huge puddle on the floor but all the books and scientific journals that were dripping water from the shelves. The broken pipe has been fixed and the water on the floor has been mopped. It is now the books the ones that suffer the aftermath of this accident. Not only saving the information was important; wet paper is a great culture media for fungi which in turn could pose a health threat to all users. The administrative staff immediately got to work in recruiting academics and students to help the drying process: “Heal a book!“, they informally called it. Everyone grabbed an item and with the help of industrial blow dryers - the kind we use in chemistry labs to dry wet glassware – and an extraordinary amount of paper towels, each person got to dry the journals page by page.
I got an item that corresponded to the British journal New Scientist, which consisted of about fifteen issues from the year 1980. When I noticed the title in my hand I wanted to switch it. Should we save first those journals with the highest impact factor? or should we work on those that are most relevant to our own research? Should we throw away Chemical Abstracts now that the whole database is online? After all, New Scientist is a magazine which summarizes research that has already been peer reviewed and published; it is journalistic work, not peer reviewed science. But I was afraid to look pedantic so I got to work on drying it.
Each person had their own technique. Some journals had their binding covers still in good shape so they were placed open standing on the floor in front of fans. Some placed paper towels carefully between pages and after a while they would remove them and then use the blow dryer. I thought that if I heated the edges of the paper and thus dried them, capillarity would drive the moisture in the innermost part of each page outwards. Didn’t quite work, at least not in a pragmatic time scale, so I went back to page by page.
I’m glad I did so. That way I was able to find some real pieces of history which could make any scientist nostalgic. For example: I took these photos with my iPod, and if you are by any chance reading this piece on an iPhone, you must find the following picture about Swedish research endearing.
Yes, online doodling games were already a thought back in 1980!
Are you subscribed to this blog? That means you got a notification by e-mail. So what? No big deal! Well, back in 1980 Britain was getting excited over a new form of comunication called the ‘Electronic Mail’ (available only at a couple of post offices). Besides, you wouldn’t have been able to get that message nor read this post on an HP Matrix Machine (you can’t even find a decent link in google about it nowadays!)
But scientists are not all about working, we like games too! So how about purchasing a ‘Hungarian Magic Cube‘ or a ‘Chess Computer‘?
We also love a juicy piece of gossip. For instance, did you know that John Maddox was a controversial editor for Nature back in the 70′s who, as a student, went into chemistry because if he’d gone into physics he could’ve been drafted by the army in WWII to work on radars? Well me neither. But it seems that we should have known who he was, and now we do.
There were many pieces of science news that nearly kept me in the library all night, if not for the fact that I had to drive 50 miles from Mexico City to my place in Toluca, but the one that captured my attention more than any other was the news of a European dream envisioned more than three decades ago; a dream from a group of scientists about looking for answers, like any other group of scientists, answers that are fundamental for the understanding of our universe and the understanding of matter, back when some of the biggest questions hadn’t even been fully posed, this group of visionaries agreed on taking the necessary steps to build an enormous subatomic-particle Supercollider for the European Center for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN.
Back in 1980 I was already alive but I was only two years old. I could barely talk and had no idea what the word ‘future‘ meant, let alone what I’d become when it reached me. Now, even if I’m not a particle physicist I get excited about the news regarding the finding of the Higgs Boson and even if I’m not an astronomer I also get excited about pictures from the Curiosity Rover on Mars. I am a scientist. One out of hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions, and this is part of my collective memory, the memory of the work of those who paved the road for us, those giants upon whose shoulders we struggle day by day to stand with dignity and against all odds. But here is the thing: those giants are actually made of dwarfs, millions of them; millions of us. Thousands and thousands of papers written, reviewed and published; papers that collectively gather the scientific experience summed up in rigorous experiments both successful and failed.
Preserving the information in those wet journals is important despite the fact you can get them all online. I hope one day a bored chemistry grad student goes to the library and browses old issues of New Scientist and other journals just for fun; they’ll go for a trip down a collective Memory Lane which will remind them that if they can dream it in the present, they can make it come true in the future.
This morning at around 9 AM, I guess, this little blog of mine reached a significant milestone: It reached 100,000 visitors!
The blog started about 3.5 years ago when I was still living in Romania working at the lab of the late Prof. Dr. Ioan Silaghi-Dumitrescu. Back then I started the blog as a way to make my research visible to others and maybe in that way I could gain some notoriety which could help me in the near future to land a fine research position. None of that happened. I remember we were having some issues with some PCM calculations in the lab and after a lot of hard work and a lot of asking we gather some tips to work with implicit solvation models in Gaussian. Prof. Silaghi suggested we should write them down and put them on the wall of the lab so we had them available at all times; it was then when I suggested we could place them in my little blog so we had them available online. This happened in September 2009, three years ago, and little did I know, this post became quite popular, it is still one of the most visited ones in the blog. Later on we had a similar problem while trying to visualize Natural Bond Orbitals, there was too much information but it was all scattered, so we did it again, we gathered some of the info and made a new post which became also quite popular.
Little have I written about my own work, mostly because of fear of being scooped, I guess.
I’d like to thank every reader who has ever liked, commented, rated, favorited, shared, reblogged, blogrolled, recommended any of my posts and the nearly 200 people who have subscribed or followed this little blog, as I like to call it.
I was first introduced to Bradbury’s writing in 1989 during my first year in junior high school (here in Mexico that is the 7th grade; I was eleven years old then) by my literature teacher Ángel Molina-Aja at LOGOS School, a progressive institution in southern Mexico City; so now with the departure of the grand master of Science Fiction I can’t help but to think about Ángel and his possible motivations for making us read ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ of all possible books. It is pretty obvious now that his intention was to engage us in literature (prior to ‘Chronicles‘ we read ‘The Hobbit‘) and to make us read something that would in turn make us want to read more and so by reading we would open a world of possibilities to ourselves. His job as a literature teacher wasn’t just to make us learn about literature but to learn how to appreciate it for the values that leaves in our lives, whatever our own inclinations were. As I’ve written before, science fiction is a usual common denominator to us people working in science because we deal with imagining how to bring to life things and ideas that are currently nonexistent. Whether we create new materials with new applications or we come up with wacky mathematical theories that describe the intricacies of the universe, we all have to first set our imaginations free and believe everything is possible. In this way we are sometimes less pragmatical (albeit not necessarily more creative) than lawyers, business people and the like. Education should then be formative, not informative, in order to make an intellectually resourceful population in every area of the human and social development. Here in Mexico the average reading habit is less than 1 book a year per person! and with the upcoming presidential elections and the respective campaigns, it becomes obvious that a poorly read people is a very manipulable one. And the idea of an ignorant population kept in line by the ruling powers through alienating them from literature is the main theme of Bradbury’s other masterpiece ‘Fahrenheit 451‘, in which a fireman is a person who starts fires in order to destroy books (it is widely known by now thanks to this novel that 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which common paper ignites itself). In ‘Fahrenheit 451‘ books are banned because they make people unhappy and unsettled by showing them a world of possibilities that they may or may not achieve, so it is safer to just satisfy people basic needs, which include 24 hours of personalized TV programming on every wall of their homes (sounds familiar?), and by doing so they wont question their leaders or their position in society. They just wont have dreams! That’s the bottom line. The many troubles of my country won’t be solved by people reading Bradbury, but if I was engaged into literature by ‘Chronicles‘, among other books from other authors, and by that engagement I was able to discover the world of science and decide I wanted to become one, then the ripple or domino effect triggered by reading, reached its goal; a goal set by my teachers, to whom I will be always most thankful.
I wish I could post a picture of my old copy of ‘Chronicles‘ but I guess it’s back at my parents place all worn out. I have to remember taking a picture of it next time I visit my folks. Here is a picture of my old copy of the Spanish translation to ‘Chronicles‘ all worn out thanks to me and my sister, I guess. Thanks to my dad and his ninja-dropbox-skills for getting this picture for me!
Bradbury’s work and specially ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ romanticized the idea of space exploration. What a huge coincidence, in a sort of a poetic way, that his departure occurred on the same day as the transit of Venus, a phenomenon that will not occur for another 105 years. I wrote earlier on my facebook page that he did not died, that he only went back to Venus. I was close to not posting it for it might be in bad taste, but then I thought that I don’t know what happens when we die and nobody else in the world does either, so this is as valid as any other hypothesis but only more romantically so.
Rest in peace Mr. Ray Bradbury and may this be a thankful testimony for all those hours of rational entertainment and enlightenment.
In science one thing is true and universal: We need funding. Here in Mexico the main source of funding comes from the National Council for Science and Technology (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, CONACyT) which is an institution that depends directly from the federal government. Over the years different policies have prevailed and right now we are not looking into a good future. I wont go into all the alleged corruption or about the prevailing notion of favoritism within the institution’s scheme for funding research. I just want to write about the process of projects evaluation and what I think are its great shortcomings.
So first, as in any other part of the world, it all begins with a proposal being submitted for evaluation. In this particular case there is a specific application for “Young Researchers”, that is people who are newcomers to any scientific institution in the country, who are in need for a large amount of resources in order to get their own labs going. The notion of an “associate researcher” is not well understood, I think. After the submission is complete and the paperwork validated, the proposal is sent to a few other researchers in the field who either accept or decline to review the project and then are asked concise questions about the originality and relevance of the project; its feasibility; the proponent’s profile about how well suited he or she is to deliver what is being promised, and finally they are asked to evaluate how well justified is the requested budget. The reviewers then turn their comments, and rankings, to CONACyT in which a committee gathers all the data and ranks all the projects. Those projects with the higher ranking get their funding with, maybe, minor adjustments in order to stretch the reach of funding to as many projects as possible. Some other criteria are used, for example researchers at institutions with small budgets have increased chances of being funded than those on a large institution. It is a matter of balance: giving the money to those who need it but that at the same time will sure do more (and better) with it.
So far it all sounds pretty good and fair to me! except there is a problem: Reviewers don’t always do their job properly and sometimes you get to read comments such as
the proponent has no experience in graduating students
well, thats why I clicked the “Young Researcher” button. Some other pearls of wisdom include
the proponent didn’t take into consideration the latest publications in the field he is trying to study
and then he/she enlists references with publication dates posterior to the date of the proposal’s submission! Sometimes our proposals may not be thoroughly well read (or, lets admit, written) and reviewers give you a bad review for omitting things that you indeed covered. But once you get a bad review (from an anonymous peer) there is no turning around, you only find out what they wrote once you have been declined the grant.
My little suggestion: Let the review process be questioned, just once per reviewer and without the possibility of modifying the proposal. That is, once a reviewer emits his or her comments then I could get to read them and address their concerns in a single letter. If I can prove them something so evident as a conflicting set of dates between missing references and the proposal submission’s, then they would have to change their ranking, but without giving me the chance to modify the project anymore as to fit their comments. The process would take longer, maybe, but it already takes more than half a year! a few more months could be worthy if a more fair ranking is obtained.
Science needs funding; not all the scientific proposals deserve funding, true.
As a scientist I believe the free share of information (which is not the same as to say of property) should prevail throughout the vastness of this global tool we have available. I’ve worked for private companies and I do believe in their right to keeping private the information they have invested in. But with SOPA there is an issue with freedom of speech and nobody wants to have their accounts monitored by a government, any government. Please read “1984″ by George Orwell to have a better understanding of how false security and safety is not worthy of a captive society under surveillance.
You have all gained something by the free share of knowledge in this blog, as I’ve had from other online resources such as the CCL. If SOPA is passed, then I, we, may not be able to provide help with the use of commercial software such as Gaussian, for instance, and the progress of science would be directly hurt.
I do not endorse piracy. Private companies are entitled to profit as a return of their investments. But laws such as SOPA would only hurt those trying to make the most out of the largest communication media ever created in the history of mankind, while doing little to protect investors and developers. Many are the examples of developments arising from public effort: Wikipedia; Linux; OpenGL; The GNUproject. Open share of ideas have brought this and many other resources which ultimately result in the development of science and technology. Please read this article (in Spanish) by Dr. Alejandro Pisanty, a former teacher of mine at the Chemistry School. He was the head of the Academic Computing Services at UNAM, and one of the founders of the Computational Chemistry List (CCL); He most definitely knows a thing or two about information technologies.
It should be clear that the openness of the Internet has clear advantages as seen a year ago when the people from Tunisia got organized online and got rid of a dictatorship. Control of communication is a common treat of fascist and authoritative regimes. Information set them free.
Please rate/like/comment this post if you are also against SOPA and for the freedom
of speech over the Internet.
Gina, my girlfriend, is a successful business woman who runs her own company, which implies she has to be pragmatic in order for her business to succeed efficiently. She takes care -probably a lot- of what she says, so for instance she would never say something is awful but rather not nice. Definition through complementarity seems to be the norm in the business world in order to be as likable as possible and thus never driving potential customers away. We scientists on the other hand say things the way they are and hence we are taken by arrogant most of the time. And we are arrogant because we like things right. Even if we understand what you mean with an ill posed sentence, we’ll point out the implications of posing it in a wrong way or just blatantly correct your phrase. We deal with understanding and modifying our surrounding world -the real world, our real world- and, above all things, we love being right! Thus we leave little room for wrong when it comes to other people.
But there is another striking difference between our worlds, one that during this holiday season led our friends (actually my girlfriend’s circle of which I’m now a part) to manufacture and give me this t-shirt as a holiday present:
Yes. I’m a chemist, I have a PhD and work at a university doing research; that is enough to qualify for The Big Bang Theory cast, right? and if all resemblance is transitive then I for sure spend my Wednesday evenings at a local comic book store, right? Well, wrong! (ha! I loved that one!) But to be completely
honest accurate, I do enjoy science fiction a lot. I like the classics such as Asimov and Bradbury as well as Lem and Vonegut. When it comes to cinema I consider myself a huge fan; I prefer Star Wars over Star Trek (if pressed) but particularly enjoyed the latest Star Trek installment more than any of the ones in the new SW trilogy, except maybe for “Revenge of the Sith“. When it comes to fantasy I prefer movies than literature; I’ve never read LOTR and I don’t think I will, but I’m about to re-read The Hobbit during the holidays (I need my leisure reading during the next two weeks).
Back to my pragmatic girlfriend. She doesn’t like sci-fi or fantasy; “fakey” she calls them. For her, achieving suspension of disbelief is nearly impossible and that has made me reflect on where this cliché of us liking sci-fi and fantasy so much comes from.
Science fiction is very appealing to us because allows us to set our imaginations wild and dream about what we could achieve in the future with our own work in terms of technology development (Does Gina dream about building a corporate empire? I’ll ask her tonight). Some of these achievements would involve the verification of wacky scientific theories (think about warp speed in Star Trek and how it implies that speeds faster than light are achievable via the Alcubierre metric in this instance) or the advent of a new set of them. Despite the popular belief, those in the science business have to be very creative people; we cannot simply spend the rest of our careers doing what others have already achieved (although there is an increasing number of people trying) so we all try to stay on the cutting edge even if that only generates a million different cutting edges, some of which become sharper than others. We have to be imaginative, believers of the unbelievable, for only this way we can come up with the technology that eventually makes current sci-fi look fakey. The real world of stock exchange, bills, mergers, negotiations and taxes is very elusive to most of us if not just down boring. The really remarkable thing between us is that both our worlds are able to coexist, and even more so, we support each other in our careers through success and failure, despite the fact we often don’t understand what is going on.
I will continue being the geek within her -now our- circle of friends; I will embrace it and own it. Gina on the other hand will continue being the business woman among my circle of friends from grad school; she will have to keep on nodding when we talk about academia and sci-fi; when we complain about the scarcity of liquid Nitrogen in our labs or we get excited about a new computing cluster with an increasing number of Xeon processors. It’s just a lot of real fun to merge these two real worlds.
Happy holidays, blogosphere! Live long and prosper.2011 – International Year of Chemistry http://www.chemistry2011.org
PS To wrap things up this year, I’d like to thank to everyone who has liked, shared, commented, followed and subscribed. I want to wish you all a very happy new year! See you all in the future
This title may sound like the one of an episode of the famous geeky sitcom The Big Bang Theory but it is not; it is in fact a far more interesting albeit less fun debate. First of all I want to make clear this post isn’t an attempt to further bash Dr. Schön err I mean Mr. Schön (sorry, I couldn’t help it) but the entire debate raises some interesting questions, specially those regarding the recent outcome of the controversy as well as the forthcoming aftermath, that are worth asking and of course, with some luck, answering.
A little background first: Jan Hendrik Schön (Germany, 1970) got a PhD in physics at the prestigious Konstanz University in his homeland; after that he got a job as a researcher at the even more prestigious Bell Laboratories located in New Jersey USA, where he made groundbreaking discoveries on conductivity, superconductivity, organic conductors and semiconductors. Ironically enough, his conduct was his doom (Sorry again, I couldn’t help this one either. ) Between 2001 and 2002 he published more than 60 scientific papers on these topics, 15 or so of which were published in Science and Nature. Similarities in the graphs led to other scientists to believe the data could have been manipulated which turned out to be the case! Little by little, both journals Science and Nature, as well as other important journals like Physical Review and Applied Physics Letters withdrew some of his papers; others remain under further investigation for their possible withdrawal. Dr. Jan Schön eventually had to come clean and confess his lack of scientific rigor and misbehavior. This and him being fired from Bell Labs could have been the end of the story but in no way was near it. In 2004 the University of Konstanz decided to withdraw his PhD degree to which Dr. Schön appealed on the grounds that his thesis work was performed without any data manipulation or any other sort of ethical misconduct on his part; finally today after seven years of back and forth lawsuits and appeals the state court ruled against him and the university stripped him from his degree. Dr. Schön is now Mr. Schön. Further details (since this post does not intend to be a repository of others nor to just inform you about the entire gossip) can be found in this Wikipedia article.
So what is this post about then? First of all I’d like to address the obvious questions: Was the University of Konstanz right or wrong about withdrawing his degree? Did they go too far? What are the implications for other scientists? There is still controversy among the scientific community about whether or not the University had any right to do it on the grounds of scientific misconduct on work that they did not fund nor had to do anything with. The matter is fairly obvious, the University of Konstanz does not want to be affiliated with Schön on any level since it will indirectly hurt their reputation. But is someone really thinking that this university is to blame? I hardly think so. Therefore on that side they could have let him keep his degree but on the other side one may postulate that credibility must be sustained throughout our careers just in the same way as MD’s can have their licenses revoked under malpractice. Granted, MD’s get stripped only from the right to legally exercise medicine not from their degree, meaning that in some cases they may recover that legal right instead of having to go to school all over again, although in the harshest cases this wouldn’t help either.
Definitely his conduct deserved strong actions from his employers and the scientific community, in the end almost 30 papers in very prestigious journals had to be withdrawn! He was trying to take the scientific community for a spin! And this is another thing I’m baffled about. Didn’t he ever think that such claims, such amazing claims, would attract the interest of a large number of the most prominent scientists working in the field of conductivity? As if there weren’t billions of dollars invested in those topics worldwide! If he was breaking new ground in organic superconductivity by proving some theoretical predictions, he would have gotten a Nobel prize for sure and that would have attracted a lot more people in trying to reproduce his findings in order to make their own little contributions therefrom. In fact this actually happened! Many laboratories throughout the world claimed to have failed in reproducing his results. I can only imagine those teams feeling frustrated for not being able to get the same numbers/trends in their experiments and clearly getting less and less frustrated when they found out they were not alone and that the number of their companions was growing larger. Had he published his results in some obscure, dubious-quality journal probably nobody would have ever found out, but then Lucent Technologies, the profitable company that runs Bell Labs would have not been happy in funding his research. This in turn raises yet other questions: How come nobody at Bell Labs was able to tell his results were all made up or even just tempered with? Private companies are not run as academic labs, publication of findings go through a lengthier process than in academia, which is normal since private research centers invest a lot of money in developing technologies which will generate enough profit to keep the company running and researching for as long as possible. They also have strict policies about data-recording and experiment-tracking procedures which apply to every researcher in the company; they are not subject to interpretation or to desire, they have to be followed to keep track of all the expensive research done within. The second question I got from this paragraph is about other frauds done in lesser journals which may go unnoticed because the work itself simply goes unnoticed by its own lack of merit. And from this, yet another question is raised and linked to another ongoing controversy: What is the future of peer-reviewing in journal publications? Surely no referee would have tried to reproduce his experiments and I’m sure a large number of data was requested by Nature and Science in order to deem the papers worth of being published (was his answer to this request “No problem!“?) Referees this quality were blindsided by reputations, Schön’s and Bell Lab’s; only until the final users (the readers) noticed similarities between data sets, and noise, in different experiments that the fraud rose to the surface, but noticing those similarities should have been the work of the referees! in fact that is their job! Aren’t they accountable by omission too?
This controversy is not a first, nor will it be the last. The most famous controversy of data tempering that comes to mind right now is the infamous experiment, or more accurately the infamous data selection in Robert Millikan’s experiment for measuring the charge of the electron. In this experiment only the “nicest” data points were used and although inclusion of the entire data set would have not affected the final value of the charge obtained, the statistical error would be increased to 2% instead of 0.5% as he presented it to the scientific community; a much “nicer” error. Of course I’m not trying to compare both cases which are completely apart; selecting data is not as serious as data manufacturing, but they are both just as unethical. Should have Millikan been stripped from his PhD degree and/or his Nobel Prize?
Mexico is not immune to this controversies either. In 2006 three papers authored by the famous Mexican Professor Eusebio Juaristi and his student Omar Muñoz-Muñiz in 2003, had to be withdrawn also on the grounds of irreproducibility from the Journal of Organic Chemistry, Tetrahedron and Tetrahedron Letters. There were serious errors in those papers which led to believe the student had incurred in scientific misconduct but apparently they managed to prove they were simply honest mistakes. Was Muñoz-Muñiz denied his PhD degree? No. In fact he now works as a researcher at Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico. Not a bad gig. I understand he had some problems getting into the National Researchers System which gathers us all researchers in Mexico as an independent entity at the same time that it collects data about the research done in the country. Data seems to be today’s secret word kids! Once again the whole ordeal could have been dealt with if a proper peer reviewing process had been carried out from the very start.
The conclusions: Ethical work, ethical reviews. Is it really that hard?2011, International Year of Chemistry http://www.chemistry2011.org