Monthly Archives: October 2006

Anatomy of a scientific fraud

Just drop everything, and read the NYTimes story (mixed with some analysis) about Eric Poehlman’s fraud which made him “only the second scientist in the United States to face criminal prosecution for falsifying research data.” Here’s the opening paragraph:

On a rainy afternoon in June, Eric Poehlman stood before a federal judge in the United States District Court in downtown Burlington, [Vermont]. His sentencing hearing had dragged on for more than four hours, and Poehlman, dressed in a black suit, remained silent while the lawyers argued over the appropriate sentence for his transgressions. Now was his chance to speak. A year earlier, in the same courthouse, Poehlman pleaded guilty to lying on a federal grant application and admitted to fabricating more than a decade’s worth of scientific data on obesity, menopause and aging, much of it while conducting clinical research as a tenured faculty member at the University of Vermont. He presented fraudulent data in lectures and in published papers, and he used this data to obtain millions of dollars in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health — a crime subject to as many as five years in federal prison. Poehlman’s admission of guilt came after more than five years during which he denied the charges against him, lied under oath and tried to discredit his accusers. By the time Poehlman came clean, his case had grown into one of the most expansive cases of scientific fraud in U.S. history.

The following paragraph, which appears in the second part of the long article, sums up the problem:

The scientific process is meant to be self-correcting. Peer review of scientific journals and the ability of scientists to replicate one another’s results are supposed to weed out erroneous conclusions and preserve the integrity of the scientific record over time. But the Poehlman case shows how a committed cheater can elude detection for years by playing on the trust — and the self-interest — of his or her junior colleagues.

Two other high profile cases of fraud in recent times — Hendrik Schön and Hwang Woo Suk — also make an appearance in the NYTimes story:

Most people involved in Poehlman’s case say that fraud as extensive as his represents an uncommon pathology, similar to what drove the South Korean scientist who claimed to have cloned human stem cells or the Lucent Technologies physicist who falsified extensive amounts of nanotechnology data. More frequent, according to a study published in Nature in June 2005, are smaller lapses in ethical judgment, like failing to present data that contradicts your previous research or inappropriately assigning author credit. Brian Martinson, who conducted that study with colleagues from the University of Minnesota, suggests that those gray areas, which many scientists inhabit at one time or another during their careers, portend a greater ailment for the scientific process. Minor transgressions, largely undetected and easily rationalized, can build up like plaque, compromising scientific integrity over time.

Do read the whole thing. It’s long, but well worth it.

Mechanics of superheroes

The spider-‘silk’ produced by Spiderman about as thick as his arm — it’s more like ‘spider-rope’. But, does it really need to be that thick? No, says this SciAm article on the wonderful combination of mechanical properties of real spidersilk.

The different silks have unique physical properties such as strength, toughness and elasticity, but all are very strong compared to other natural and synthetic materials. … The movie Spider-Man drastically underestimates the strength of silk�real dragline silk would not need to be nearly as thick as the strands deployed by our web-swinging hero in the movie.

Here’s a quick description of what makes up one of the several forms of spidersilk:

Dragline silk is a composite material comprised of two different proteins, each containing three types of regions with distinct properties. One of these forms an amorphous (noncrystalline) matrix that is stretchable, giving the silk elasticity. When an insect strikes the web, the stretching of the matrix enables the web to absorb the kinetic energy of the insect�s flight. Embedded in the amorphous portions of both proteins are two kinds of crystalline regions that toughen the silk. Although both kinds of crystalline regions are tightly pleated and resist stretching, one of them is rigid. It is thought that the pleats of the less rigid crystalline regions not only fit into the pleats in the rigid crystals but that they also interact with the amorphous areas in the proteins, thus anchoring the rigid crystals to the matrix. The resulting composite is strong, tough, and yet elastic.

Can you switch off your sense of fairness (and your selfishness)?

You can, with the help of magnetic ‘stimulation’ of certain parts of your brain. Check out this Scientific Americanpiece:

In the [ultimatum] game, a researcher offers two players a set amount of money and explains that if they agree on how to divvy it up they will keep that money for themselves. If they don’t, neither will get anything. One player then offers the other a split. Our thirst for fairness dictates that most players will reject a patently unfair division–such as offering only $4 out of a total of $20. Yet, self interest would argue that even $4 is better than nothing …

TMS [transcranial magnetic stimulation] affects electrical activity in the brain, altering neuron firing in the area where it is applied. During … tests, 44.7 percent of the young men who experienced TMS on the right side of their prefrontal cortex accepted the most unfair offers–a split of 16 to fourcompared with just 14.7 percent of those whose left side had been stimulated and 9.3 percent of the controls. …

Physics Nobel

By now, I’m sure you all know that this year’s Physics Nobel has gone to George Smoot and John Mather. The NYTimes report on this year’s Physics Nobel is here.

“What we have found is evidence for the birth of the universe and its evolution,” Dr. Smoot said in a news conference on the results in 1992. About a map showing the splotchy seeds of galaxy formation, he famously said, “If you are religious, it is like looking at God.”

Sean Carroll gives his perspectives on the Prize here. Janet Stemwedel has comments from her mother, who worked on some of the data from COBE.

The New York Times has chosen to open its archives so we can feel the excitement created by the scientists when they announced their COBE results in 1992. The newspaper called the discovery “momentous”.