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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 February, 2004, 16:54 GMT
Nano-scientist's dark secret
By Nick Green

One of the most brilliant scientific researchers of recent years stands accused of committing an elaborate scientific fraud, fooling many eminent experts.

Hendrik Schoen, AP
Bell's internal inquiry on Schoen was damning
In 2001, a team led by Hendrik Schoen appeared to have invented the smallest organic transistor ever made.

Only a single molecule in length, it was hailed as a huge breakthrough, capable of transforming the world of computers.

But, as BBC Two's Horizon programme shows this week, the "breakthrough" led to his disgrace and began a cascade of events that would result in one of the most intriguing science stories of recent years.

When he published his work, Schoen's tiny transistor was regarded as a discovery that could have blasted open the world of nanotechnology - where cheap, powerful computers could transform the world in which we live.

Stuff of legend

Transistors are the minute "switches" that control the flow of information in a computer chip. The more you can fit on to a chip, the more powerful your computer.

Schoen's transistor was far smaller than anything possible on a silicon chip, so it seemed to herald a new age when computer power could grow to undreamed of levels.

It was the latest in a long line of great discoveries made by Schoen. He was only in his early 30s and yet had already made advances in the world of superconductors and lasers.

His name had become so prominent in the scientific journals that to many of his rivals he had taken on legendary status.

Professor Jeremy Baumberg, from Southampton University, UK, told Horizon: "This was the new level of science that you had to match yourself up against, and everybody knew they couldn't, they couldn't meet that.

"It was like competing against a god really." But his transistor work had surpassed everything he had done before.

Growing doubts

What he had apparently achieved was a way of connecting up dye-like molecules in a transistor circuit. When the circuit was switched on, they found it had the same characteristics as a silicon transistor.

It was a double breakthrough. Schoen's transistor was not just very small, it was made from simple organic molecules.

He had beaten a huge raft of teams around the world to the discovery of the first non-silicon-based transistor. One rival, Paul McEuen, at Cornell University, was amazed.

Jeremy Baumberg, BBC
Professor Baumberg: "It was like competing against a god"
"It was really stunning to those of us who'd been toiling away long and hard to try to make these kind of things work. It just blew us out of the water."

Once it was published, there were those who speculated it could be the first step in a journey that could lead to the death of the silicon chip industry.

It promised incredibly cheap computer chips that did not need to be manufactured in hugely expensive fabrication plants, but instead could be custom-built, at a fraction of the cost, in simple laboratories.

But during the excitement surrounding this discovery, there were those who had doubts about the veracity of the science.

Many of Hendrik Schoen's fantastic claims just could not be repeated in the lab by rival scientists, and many were getting frustrated. It had got to the point where there were serious whisperings about his credibility.

No chance

One of those who had heard the rumours was Professor Lydia Sohn, now working at the University of California at Berkeley, but even she was surprised when after getting into work one morning she found a message on her answerphone. "It said: 'Lydia, this is your homework, look at these two papers by Hendrik'."

The two papers described Schoen's transistor work, but crucially they told of two completely different experiments.

After reading and rereading the journals, Sohn found that the two papers contained graphs that were exactly the same. Her colleague Paul McEuen believed that the chance of these two separate experiments giving the same results was "basically zero".

Further analysis of his papers going back through previous years provided more evidence of suspicious data.

Schoen's employers, Bell Laboratories, instantly launched an independent investigation into his conduct and the verdict was damning.

After its findings were released, Bell fired Schoen. Nature, the journal which had published much of his work, retracted the suspect papers triggering a huge amount of soul searching in the scientific community.

The hunt for a single molecular transistor to rival silicon goes on.

Horizon's The Dark Secret of Hendrik Schoen is broadcast on BBC Two at 2100 GMT on Thursday 5 February.

Charles Dawson: 'The Piltdown faker'
21 Nov 03  |  Science/Nature
Science marks Piltdown forgery
21 Nov 03  |  Science/Nature
Tiny transistor breaks new limits
18 Oct 01  |  Science/Nature


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