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Policy

Fraud In Chemistry

August 9, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 32

Thanks to William G. Schulz for reviewing David Goodstein’s book “On Fact and Fraud” (C&EN, June 14, page 45). This terse book is indeed a good read. Goodstein’s rather cynical but realistic take on the academic pressures involved in “the race to the top” gives case histories where scientists have committed outright fraud, as well as some that are not so clear-cut, such as that of Millikan when determining the charge of the electron (the famous “oil-drop” experiments).

Schulz correctly states that no cases of fraud in chemistry are cited, although Goodstein cites the “cold fusion” controversy, which continues to this day. I’m sure that many old-timers like me remember the excitement generated by the Russian scientist Deryagin in the late 1960s when he claimed to have discovered “polywater,” a gelatinous phase of water with a very high boiling point. His work was replicated by some labs, discredited by others.

“Polywater” was eventually determined by microanalysis to be nothing more than salt-contaminated water. It did make a splash in newspapers of the time, however, because it was feared that a (Cold War?) terrorist might “seed” the oceans and cause them to gel over! It’s ironic that this kind of mechanism is currently thought to be operative in brain-wasting diseases, caused by the rogue prion protein that converts normal protein to its own conformation.

It’s also ironic that the June 21 issue of C&EN (page 34) carries an article by Schulz describing possible administrative fraud in the chemistry community. Having read of Zafra Lerman’s excellent work at Columbia College Chicago, as well as at ACS and in humanitarian causes, it is difficult to reconcile her alleged misconduct with her otherwise exemplary career. I certainly hope that ACS as well as the American Association of University Professors (and perhaps the American Civil Liberties Union) will use its influence to ensure that Lerman receives the due process that Columbia College Chicago has not seen fit to afford her.

Ivan E. Leigh
West Chester, Pa.

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