Thursday, 21 May 2009

Plastic Fantastic – Eugenie Samuel Reich ***

Sometimes popular science books can rightly be accused of lacking a story. But not this one – it’s a gripping tale of scientific fraud, as a scientist who was regularly published in the world’s two top journals, Nature and Science, repeatedly pretended to do experiments he hadn’t, and made up data that was an impossibly good fit to theory (sometimes not even the right theory).
I know a little bit about scientific fraud, because I participated in it. When I was ten, we were supposed to do an experiment where you blew between two suspended ping pong balls and reported on what was observed. I couldn’t be bothered to do it, and just wrote down what I thought would happen (I was wrong). The dressing down I got from my teacher would stay with me forever. It’s not a mistake I would make twice. But it was quite different for Jan Hendrick Schön, the subject of this book. He would add fraud upon fraud, digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself as he went along.
The book makes some good points about the limitations of science’s ability to spot fraud, while admitting that in the end it is likely to be found out. But it misses the opportunity to really explore the personality of someone who could do this. Why did Schön do it? How could he possibly hope to get away with it, when he knew others would try to duplicate his pretend experiments, or ask to see actual experimental materials? It is never really explained. What we get instead is a bit too much like a reporter’s notebook – much to much ‘he said, she said’ as different scientists explain what they saw and what they believed to be happening.
The trouble is, it’s a superb tale, but it’s not told in a way that gives any sense of storytelling. It could be better structured and it could have much more compulsion, more pulling of the reader along. It doesn’t help that at the end we’re left with a series of questions about how scientific results could be handled better – but the author gives us no suggestions of answers.
What isn’t the author’s fault, is that it is also published on what seems to be recycled toilet paper – it’s very pulp feeling, not nice on the fingers. Probably very green, but it’s the sort of reading experience that makes me think ‘bring on the e-reader.’
In terms of the subject, this is a five star book, and it is well worth reading, but it does feel a little like a wasted opportunity.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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