When science narratives go bad

In the following essay, Jennifer Ouellette explores what happens when otherwise normal science documentaries attempt to give their topics dramatic flourish...and fail hard.

So, the Spousal Unit and I clicked on the Science Channel last week for a bit of Monday evening viewing to unwind after a long day's work. Being of a macabre bent, Jen-Luc Piquant thoroughly enjoyed the documentary on the latest "unveiling" of the "real" Jack the Ripper, particularly the intensity of the actor playing the role of the supposed killer — he wielded that knife during the re-enactments with wild abandon and even managed just a bit of that telltale psychotic gleam in his eye. Really, an Emmy-worthy performance. Then there was a quite good documentary on lie detection that perhaps might have emphasized the naysayers a bit more, but certainly could be considered a fair treatment of the topic.

We should have stopped there. But the next documentary — originally aired in 2008 — was about bad boy physicist Jan Hendrik Schoen, once a Bell Labs wunderkind who disappeared in disgrace when it was discovered he'd falsified data on his revolutionary "breakthroughs." (Episode title: "The Dark Secret of Hendrik Schoen." Ooh! Spooky!) I perked up: what's this? Actual materials science getting play on the Science Channel? On any channel? Because let's face it, theoretical physics, cosmology, neuroscience, and biomedical stuff usually hog the lion's share of the TV science coverage. And I've written about Schoen in the past, so it's a topic of interest to me. Unfortunately, it was... well, kind of weird in how the the makers chose to frame their raw material. (And I'm not the only one who thought so.)

Look, I'm not your typical irritable nerd-gasser who routinely gets my knickers in a twist about the dangers of over-popularizing science, although like a lot of us who love science, I do have my beefs with the relentless dumbing-down that has become a hallmark of the newer Discovery Channel shows — epitomized by this satirical Onion article. (Money quote: "I don't like it when the science people talk about things no one can even understand," said Rich Parker, an Ohio resident. "It's like, just quit your yapping and dip the chain saw into the liquid nitrogen already." That said, I kinda love "Punkin' Chunkin'." I have a weakness for things like catapults and trebuchets.) Furthermore, I will passionately defend the right of Hollywood to take liberties with scientific fact when creating their fictions, solely for the sake of the narrative. But I do have limits. If you're making a documentary, I firmly believe you have an obligation not just to get the science right, but to be responsible about how you frame your narrative.

To be fair, the science that was presented was explained quite clearly, for the most part — even the complexities of Schoen's work with organic molecule transistors using pentacene. No, my issue is with how the documentary was put together as a narrative — namely, the weird juxtaposition of the Schoen story (powerful all by itself) with the world of nanotechnology, specifically, the hysterical end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it "grey goo" scenario whereby tiny self-replicating nanobots consume every bit of matter around until there's nothing left but a slimy gray goo.(Video embedding has been disabled on YouTube, but you can watch a segment here, although it cuts out before the narrator starts pouring on the Crazy Sauce.)

If that apocalyptic scenario sounds a trifle familiar, that's because (a) you got a taste of it in the climax to The Day The Earth Stood Still, and (b) it's also the cornerstone of Michael Crichton's bestselling novel, Prey. The premise dates back 20 years, when Eric Drexler, emeritus director of the Foresight Institute, published Engines of Creation. Drexler envisioned a world transformed by microscopic nanoassemblers able to reproduce themselves and build anything, atom by atom, with unprecedented precision. But he also warned that unless they were properly controlled, self-replicating nanomachines could run amok, growing to huge numbers so quickly that they would turn all life on earth to mush.

We should be concerned with the potential impact, health effects, etc. of emerging nanotechnology (and indeed, any emerging technology). But the current scientific consensus seems to be that even if such nanobots are viable, practical production is decades away, and their dangers have been greatly exaggerated. "The idea that they're going to take over biological systems is absolutely silly," Jim Thomas, a Royal Society University fellow, told Time Europe in 2004. Drexler himself has backpedaled a bit from his original alarm, claiming he had raised the possibility as a "worst-case" scenario. He still maintains the "gray goo" scenario is "well within the realm of physical law," but admitted that he had "underestimated the popularity of depictions of swarms of tiny nanobugs in science fiction and popular culture."

Here's my primary objection to using this as a narrative framing device: about the only thing Schoen's research has to do with that very hypothetical scenario is that his organic molecular transistors supposedly functioned at the nanoscale (I mean, had they actually worked, they would have functioned at the nanoscale). So why the hell is it mentioned not just at the outset, but repeatedly throughout the episode, every time the makers decided they need to up the stakes to create a sense of "peril" in the viewer? And make no mistake, that's what they were trying to accomplish. Because the hysteria wasn't limited to killer nanobots. Know what's even scarier than gray goo? Moore's Law! We're going to reach the limits of Moore's Law any day now. Oh noes! And apparently when that happens, there will literally be rioting in the streets. Social chaos! Absolute anarchy! I'm not kidding: the show actually interspersed the dire narration about Moore's Law with video of violent street riots.

I couldn't help it: I burst out laughing. How could I not? That kind of nonsense wouldn't even fly in a science fiction movie; everyone would ridicule the scenario as laughably implausible. At least the discussion of Moore's Law is relevant to discussing Schoen's research: he was developing organic transistors that could one day replace silicon and allow microprocessors to shrink even further. Again, embedding is disabled, but in this clip you can see a nifty explanation of what happens to silicon at the nanoscale, courtesy of featured physicist Jeremy Baumgarten — who comes off very well in the show. (Once again, the video cuts out before the over-the-top predictions of street riots as a result of reaching the limits of Moore's Law.)

That's what I found so frustrating. Once it got around to covering Schoen's actual work, the show took off. The story deserves to be told right. What Schoen did was truly shocking, and the episode could have focused more on what constitutes scientific fraud; why it's damaging, and what drives people like Schoen to commit it. Fortunately, there is a wonderful account of the Schoen incident in Eugenie Samuel Reichs' excellent tome, Plastic Fantastic. Here's a shorter account. Back in 2001, Schoen was hailed by some as a modern-day alchemist because he'd managed to get electricity to boldly conduct in certain materials (like pentacene) that had never conducted before. Barely five years out of grad school, the German-born Schoen's name was already being bandied about as a Nobel Prize contender, and he'd accepted a prestigious position as director of one of the Max Planck Institutes in Germany. When science narratives go bad

Schoen attached gold electrodes to a pentacene molecule (a material that doesn't normally conduct electricity) and covered them with a layer of aluminum oxide. This turned the molecule into a tiny conducting transistor, which he used to build simple solar cells and lasers. Then he discovered that so-called buckyballs – carbon molecules made out of 60 carbon atoms linked into a soccer ball shape – could become superconductors at far higher temperatures than previously believed. A superconductor is a material that can conduct electrical current at high speeds with very little friction.

But it all went horribly, tragically wrong when physicists discovered that Schoen's most impressive experimental data had been fabricated. To put it bluntly, he made stuff up.

First, no one else could duplicate his results. Second, Cornell physicist Paul McEuen and his Princeton colleague, Lydia Sohn, noticed that diagrams in two separate papers published in the journals Nature and Science supposedly described the electrical behavior of two different materials. Yet on closer analysis, it was clear to any trained scientist that the diagrams were either identical or based on identical data records. Schoen had used the same graphs to illustrate the outcomes of two different experiments. McEuen and Sohn sounded the alarm. Schoen insisted that the duplication was merely a clerical error, offering substitute diagrams and declaring, "I haven't done anything wrong." But subsequent investigation turned up several more similar instances, and Lucent launched a full-scale investigation. (Sohn is also featured in the documentary, and also comes off well. She nicely demonstrated how the identical graphs couldn't possibly happen: even the random noise in the signal lined up exactly.)

Hindsight is 20/20, and in retrospect, the faked data aren't all that convincing. "The data were too clean," said one researcher. "They were what you would expect theoretically, not experimentally." The sheer number of papers Schoen was producing should have aroused suspicion. Most scientists can only manage about three significant articles per year. Schoen pumped out more than 90 papers in three short years. "I find it hard to read that many papers, much less write them," physicist Art Ramirez told New Scientist, and Nobel laureate Philip Anderson admitted to Salon that, in Schoen's case, the physics community had been guilty of extreme gullibility: "We should have all been suspicious of the data almost immediately."

It's not the kind of thing the physics community takes lightly, nor should it be. Author C.P. Snow (himself a scientist), in his novel The Search (which deals openly with scientific fraud), said fraud was "the most serious crime a scientist can commit." A panel of scientific experts examined more than two dozen of Schoen's published papers and found "compelling evidence" of manipulation and misrepresentation of data on 16 separate occasions. Schoen had substituted entire figures from other papers, removed data points that disagreed with his theoretical predictions, and even used mathematical functions (theory) in place of actual observed data. Furthermore, he had done this "intentionally and recklessly and without the knowledge of any of his co-authors," and in so doing, showed "a reckless disregard for the sanctity of data in the value system of science."

It is unquestionably among the darkest moments in recent physics history. Consequences fell hard and fast once the deception was exposed. Schoen literally lost everything: his Bell Labs job, his prestigious appointment, several prizes he'd been awarded, even his PhD. He returned to Germany in disgrace and quickly faded into obscurity. He's kept a hermit-like low profile ever since.

See? It's an awesome story. My suggestion to the Science Channel: if you want to cover gray goo and nanotech, make that separate, and if you're looking for a dramatic flourish, you could maybe tie it all in to Crichton's novel, or — for nifty visuals — the world devouring mini-bots in The Day the Earth Stood Still. If you want to cover the story of Jan Hendrik Schoen and the issue of scientific fraud, cover that and trust the material to give you a compelling story. That's good advice for anyone who works in producing these sorts of documentaries. Sure, the science is important, and you should strive to get the details right. And the visuals are pretty critical, too. But you also need to tell a compelling story, and to do that in combination with the first two elements — well, maybe it wouldn't hurt to have a scientist or two involved from the outset to make sure the story you're trying to tell actually makes sense. Click to view

This post originally appeared on Cocktail Party Physics.