October 08, 2002
Blowing It Big

Jan Hendrik Schön, left.

The guy on the left in the above photo is Jan Hendrik Schön, a 32 year-old solid state physics prodigy. Until just recently he was a researcher at Bell labs, where last year he published a paper on average every 8 days.

The current issue of Science has an article that quotes some of his colleagues:

"He rediscovered everything in condensed matter physics in the last 60 years in organic materials."

"It would be a monthly demonstration of how stupid you are. He was creating a new field every 2 months."

Then it all fell apart. Now he'll be remembered as the perpetrator of the "most extensive case of scientific misconduct in modern history."

I have to admit that part of the reason I find this story interesting is that Schön is my age, and I cannot help but narcissistically try to compare my life with my idea of what a once-wunderkind now-pariah's life is like, and wonder about what sorts of pressures motivated him to do what he did. Also, I'm drawn to failure of various kinds. Which is part of why I find Richard Gabriel fascinating--I think about some of the autobiographical parts of his Patterns of Software and the failures they describe regularly.

Posted by jjwiseman at October 08, 2002 11:35 PM

Failure often makes for more interesting reading than success. At least I can relate to it much better.

Only one ant is on top the ant hill - and *most* that are below are trying to get to the top. Or something like that ...

Posted by: Toomas Altosaar on October 9, 2002 04:17 AM

A great example of what Toomas wrote: Have you ever heard of the "Stevens-Townsend-Murphy Party"? Two years before the Donner party, they crossed the Sierra in the same place, ended up with two MORE people than they started with, and went on to found Sunnyvale, Murphys, and so on. A great success. But it's much more likely that you've heard about the Donner party. See http://www.thecaliforniatrail.com/

Posted by: Doug L. on October 9, 2002 10:31 AM

Now it's fun to watch how organisations are cleaning up their pages and removing references to the wunderkind.

For example, check the Materials Research Society's original spring 2002 award announcements:



google's cached version:

Now where did that Outstanding Young Investigator Award go ...

Posted by: Toomas Altosaar on October 10, 2002 05:12 AM
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