Blog

Science journalism and truth...

If you haven't read the first of these posts, you may want to skip down to it. It's headlined "Science Journalism for the Fan..." .

True Stories


We read a lot, most of us.
Much of our reading is to satisfy trivial or mundane purposes – ball scores, calories from fats, installation instructions, edicts from corporate…
Why do we read accounts? That is, stories? Real or imaginary?
I believe it is mostly to learn – and by learn, I mean to capture information for our hungry minds. There is a trivial purpose too. We want to be amused. We have to "suspend disbelief," i.e., ignore obvious untruths, but we want the rest to ring true. We want the truth – about what happened, yes, but about why it happened, and why people behaved as they did. Too often we are frustrated by stories that barely tell what happened,  give no inkling of why it happened, and why the people involved did what they did.
Certainly we hope to find the truth in a news article. We know that we are taking our chances with newspapers though. There’s not enough space –even if we have the reading time –to cover most stories accurately. And most stories have unknown parts anyway –parts that are guesses by the writer, or parts that reflect opinions by the publisher. And then, many of the stories in the paper are not written to inform in the first place. They are written to persuade.
What if we are looking for truth about science? Not “scientific fact,” but science, meaning the work and the people who do the work of developing new knowledge. The newspaper certainly carries some of these stories – the naming of the Higgs and other bosons (Hartosh Singh Bal, NY Times, Sept 19, 2012), the competition to map the human genome (Nicholas Wade, Kenneth Chang, Tom Buerkle, several articles, Jun 27, 2000, NY Times), the discovery of the neutron (no byline, special cable to the NY Times, Feb. 28, 1932). To learn more though, we usually have to look to magazines and books, forfeiting immediacy for the sake of accuracy.
Some of the best science stories are in magazines for general readers, like The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly; increasingly, e-zines like Slate have excellent stories. Anthologies come every year (The Best American Science Writing 2012, for example) with collections of these excellent stories.  There are wonderful books (How about The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes?) and wonderful writers (How about Oliver Sacks?).
A successful story seems true – it has enough detail, it has no maddening discrepancies, like the typical breaking news story, and the fictional characters or the nonfictional real people behave in ways we can understand. For some fiction, we have to ignore some things, but those things are usually obvious – the point of the story is usually not to fool us. For other fiction, there may be no magic or superheroes or demons, but fiction is still not held to the same standard as nonfiction. We know when we read historical fiction that it is fiction.
The problem with nonfiction is that it may seem to be true, but not be.  

A Beautiful Theory is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Returning to our story...

Cast of Characters:

Rudy M. Baum, then west coast bureau chief for C&EN, eventually editor-in-chief of the news magazine,

Michael Frenklach, then a professor at Pennsylvania State University, now at the University of California Berkeley,

Lawrence Ebert, then a research scientist with Exxon, now a patent attorney,

Harold Kroto, then at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK,

Richard Smalley of Rice University in Houston, who passed away in 2005. 

Part 2

The 1988 C&EN article

Rudy Baum, C&EN San Francisco correspondent, in the August 29 1988 issue, quoting Nobelist-to-be Richard Smalley, stated that soot particles were likely (my emphasis) formed from curling sheets of carbon atoms in flames. The article did not describe or point to the generally accepted chemistry of soot production [about which, more will follow in a later installment] at all.

It is possible, even likely, that Baum, following the exciting C60 – buckminsterfullerene story, did not imagine that he should check with the community of soot chemists to find out what they thought. He would have found that they  generally disagreed with the notion of C60 as soot precursor, and had for some time. In 1984, at the Twentieth Symposium on Combustion,  Michael Frenklach and three others presented a picture that by 1988 most people in the field accepted.  It actually appeared in print in 1985, some months before the chemistry world was rocked by the C60 story.
Perhaps the time of the interview was much earlier than August 1988 – so early that Smalley was unaware of the work of Michael Frenklach and Larry Ebert.  It would have to have been a lot earlier though... .

In November 1987 Kroto, Smalley and Frenklach were all present and speakers at a NASA sponsored meeting entitled “Carbon in the Galaxy: Studies from Earth and Space” . Frenklach remembers contradicting the idea that soot formed from the curved molecules. “Everything you [attendees of the meeting] just heard, I am going to say the opposite.” Over lunch the three talked about issues in a paper which was to appear in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.  In it, Frenklach would explain that his detailed modeling of the pyrolysis of acetylene showed that a set of planar species, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, were in fact key intermediates between the gaseous fuel and molecules large enough to coagulate and form soot. The model could accommodate the nonplanar molecules envisaged by Kroto and Smalley, but these less stable molecules would be formed with lower rate constants, and higher reverse rate constants (They would form more slowly and they would revert more rapidly) and so would not be able to build and grow larger as fast as the PAHs. In Frenklach’s memory, “Then we had lunch you know, with me and Kroto and Smalley, and Smalley was beginning to accept my argument, [but] Kroto didn’t.” As to whether they knew about Frenklach's and Ebert's paper, which actually appeared in January 1988, but had run the gauntlet of referees by mid-September before the NASA meeting, “They definitely knew about it, because we talked about it at the same meeting and discussed the issues, and Kroto himself keeps saying the same thing….”
Michael, not a procrastinator, wrote Smalley immediately after the meeting. Although he graciously admitted that curved carbon shell structures might find a place in the chemistry of soot, he firmly insisted that they were not the primary precursors of soot. He must have been disappointed with Smalley’s reply, which came more than two months later. Although diplomatic, it still clung to the curved-shell-as-soot-nucleus description. 
As far as Frenklach knows, Kroto never even acknowledged the prevalent kinetic analytical description in his own published arguments.

Action and reaction after the 1988 article

Frenklach characteristically responded quickly. Writing Baum directly, he pointed out that Smalley et. al. had ignored most of the great body of thought and experiment on soot particle formation. He lamented Baum’s not presenting “all the pros and cons.”
Baum seemed to have understood and agreed. In remarkably penitent identical letters to Frenklach and Larry Ebert, responding to his letter sent the day after Frenklach’s, he acknowledges that “I recognize that my recent article on carbon clusters was, in fact, one-sided.”

Note that he did express his hopes to return to the subject later.

Which he certainly did.

The 1990 C&EN Article

In the February 5, 1990 issue of C&EN, Rudy Baum published an article, a news piece, which eventually generated its own news. 
Was the article intended to accomplish anything other than reportage? Frenklach and Ebert thought the piece was sensationalized, in the style of tabloid journalism. Baum himself said that “it resulted in quite a bit of unpleasantness, however. Larry Ebert blew a gasket over the idea, and subsequently, Harry Kroto did all he could to get me fired.” One wonders if it was ingratiating to Richard Smalley, who had been, and would continue to be portrayed by Baum as a pathbreaker [See this list of Baum articles in C&EN referring to Smalley, including 4 prior to this one].

 

The Presentation

The average reader of a newsmagazine is not a close reader.  He or she scans, often passing through technical bits which are not immediately clear.  If the overall scan makes sense, they accept the small bits. The overall impression of an article is often, as it is for any reader in any market, controlled by the framing of the presentation. In this case, the article is framed by the language and pronouncements of the boxes, and the introduction which asserts that two camps of scientists are in conflict.

At upper left on the page, the heading SCIENCE/TECHNOLOGY. The title, Ideas on Soot Formation Spark Controversy is printed in almost sensationally large type, large enough that the six words require two lines. The article is in three columns, and the center column text on the first page is broken about a third of the way down with the designation NEWS ANALYSIS   between two horizontal set offs. The first column begins with a headline/abstract: Notion that carbon shells play a role in the formation of soot draws fire from specialists researching this combustion phenomenon , no period. In the body of the article, on the second page, columns one and three have informative boxes:

Frenklach and Ebert believe the new theory amounts to "pathological" science and liken it to cold fusion

and

Smalley and Kroto stand by their work contending that soot researchers resent new ideas posited by "outsiders".

It’s personal, not scientific! The first box says so. To have called someone’s work “pathological science” not only denoted that it was bad work, but that, like a particularly nasty disease, it would not go away. The term was probably first used by Irving Langmuir in 1953, but had been resurrected a few months prior, in 1989, to describe so-called Cold Fusion (Now called LENR, low energy nuclear reactions).
Nuclear fusion is the source of power of the sun. If it could be achieved at ordinary temperatures (cold), we might dream of limitless energy here on earth. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, who reported having achieved nuclear fusion at laboratory temperatures, were vilified because, seemingly to establish priority for themselves and the University of Utah, they broke an agreement with Steven  Jones, a colleague also pursuing cold fusion and published before him. Their behavior, and the fact that no one could replicate their work, made cold fusion the hottest potato in pathological science history.
Box two points up  that Kroto and Smalley did some name-calling of their own. Right under the NEWS ANALYSIS designation Baum reports them as saying that soot research was a “backwater” of modern chemistry. 

The technical content

After an introductory paragraph pointing out that soot formation is not completely understood, Baum asserts that a scientific controversy exists. Baum says “[The soot community] has reacted with hostility to an alternative mechanism of soot formation proposed by Richard E. Smalley, Hackerman Professor of Chemistry at Rice University, Houston; and Harry Kroto, a professor in the School of Chemistry & Molecular Sciences at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.” He goes on to say that “The hostility between the two camps has spilled beyond the scientific debate on soot and taken on personal tones.”   

Baum smoothly moves into the technical part of the text. The factual content of Baum’s article is good. It is difficult to exposit highly technical material in a readable way. I grant considerable license to a writer trying to make the abstract concrete and to make the dense flow. He or she may tell it unchronologically. He may draw material from other sources. Since the story he writes is not for the researchers, the protagonists may not like it. They may perceive some points to be improperly stressed, and others to be too lightly visited. A good reporter is, though, trying to do his job, as the scientists are doing theirs. It must be said that Baum is a master. The article is generally comprehensible to chemists, and for the most part, to a less technical reader as well, and it does flow.

In the next blog post I'll address the particulars, but for this part of the story, the essential feature is that Baum asserted that a controversy existed, which may be defensible, except that he insisted that there were two groups  of people, two groups of people knowledgeable in the field, who disagree. If you read the literature, you find that one group, "the soot community", is not a monolithic group, but rather a typical expert community with a great variety of viewpoints and long-standing disagreements (I will support this in a later installment), but there is no evidence that there was any disagreement within the group about the role of curved carbon sheets in the formation of soot. The other group? I believe the other group consists of Smalley and Kroto, and possibly grad students Heath and O'Brien. According to Jim Baggott (Perfect Symmetry,  pp. 95-97), Kroto, Heath and O'Brien were the source of the thought that C60 begat soot. Robert Curl, their co-Nobelist, "urged caution," which does not mean that he actively disagreed with the research group's hypothesis, but he was aware that soot and its formation had been studied for years and that a new hypothesis would be subjected to severe scrutiny. He was loyal to his coworkers, but did not invest heavily in the spiraling spheroidal carbon soot formation mechanism.

Aftermath
 

After the article appeared, Frenklach and Ebert reacted strongly. Ebert wrote a letter, cosigned by Frenklach, not to Baum, but to C&EN editor Michael Heylin. They denied identifying Kroto's and Smalley's work as pathological science. After months of letters back and forth, the magazine printed Frenklach and Ebert's statement, but did not retract. In effect, they endorsed Baum's picture of a heated disagreement between two groups of scholars - usually the mildest of people.

Ebert ultimately left research. Frenklach eventually fared well, although at the time he feared losing funding and felt deeply wronged. His chemical kinetic model is the current state of the art [See, for example, Whitesides and Frenklach, "Detailed Kinetic Monte Carlo Simulations of Graphene-Edge Growth," Journal of Physical Chemistry A, volume 114 (2010), pp. 689-703]. Kroto won the Nobel in 1996 and is now Sir Harry Kroto, and on faculty at Florida State University. Richard Smalley won the prize with Kroto, founded  the Rice [University] Center for Nanoscience and Technology and died of leukemia in 2005.

Next

Several aspects of this story are troubling and curious, and want answering.

Did Frenklach and Ebert really call Kroto’s and Smalley’s work  pathological science?
Did Smalley and Kroto really say that soot research was a backwater of modern chemistry?
Was there really a dispute among those who studied soot formation?

Was Baum, who admitted to having written a one-sided" piece earlier, creating a false view of the situation, and the main, the burning question, WHY?

In the next installment, I will address these questions, hopefully give the correct and accurate answers, and do it in a way that the story seems complete and true. To do this, I'll have to talk about the personalities involved and the state of the scientific world they inhabited. I hope you will return to read it, and I hope it will not take me as long as it did to get this one up.

I will be moving to another webhost, and I would like to express my appreciation to the Squarespace Team, Aisling M., Dan S., Danielle H., Danit A., Noah M., Timothy C.,  and others who helped me with these two entries.

Robert Holloway

 

 

Science journalism for the fan...

Prologue


I have been a fan of science journalism all my adult years. At one point in graduate school, when research was beyond frustrating, I wrote a letter to the dean of science journalism, David Perlman, asking how to get into the business. I can’t remember what he said, but he did answer. He may have recommended I talk to the UC Santa Cruz science writing program, which I think was just beginning then. I did that and got a rather cool reception to my eagerness. I was told that my background (graduate school researcher) was not a benefit, and was maybe a handicap. The program is good, and has produced  the kind of top quality science journalism that graces the venerable Science News. Not so much discouraged job seeker as dilettante, I left off that line of inquiry, but continued to read my favorite writers. Then my favorite, and in my mind a pathbreaker then, was Gina Bari Kolata of Science, now just known as Gina Kolata of the New York Times. Over time my tastes have changed. In the mid 00’s I met Tom Siegfried, whose experience includes newspapers, magazines and books, print and digital, and his insights have informed,  enriched and energized me.

Just a few years ago I read a book which inspired me. It was Patrick Coffey’s  Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry. Perhaps it was because my academic training was in chemistry, but I think that it was really that my training in chemistry made the subject accessible. I don’t mean that the book was full of hard science, but the figures were real people to me, people about whom I had opinions gained from immersion in the discipline and its history. Dr. Coffey (he himself is a physical chemist) had imbued the people and events of myth with reality. G. N. Lewis became a real person. Before reading Coffey, G. N. Lewis was the statued giant who overshadowed much of modern chemistry, a bronze shell the size of the lovers statue at St. Pancras Station in London, which evokes monumental hollowness. He was hollow for me even though I had worked under the supervision of his chemist son E. S. Lewis. It was whispered, erroneously as it turns out, that the younger Dr. Lewis did not like the older one and did not like people to speak of him, so I never asked him what his father was like. Coffey made him real, and made his rival Irving Langmuir real, and I believe I glimpsed the difficult Lewis who never won the Nobel Prize, and the charming Langmuir who did. I share his son’s belief that Lewis was not a suicide, although Coffey pointed out the real possibility. What he had done was to blow away the dust of years of grad school hero worship and mythology and replace it with something believable. He had to do a lot of background work – we had to know about Arrhenius, who had always been a hero of mine, we had to know the heartbreaking story of Fritz Haber, and about the other personalities who shaped thinking in my chosen field. I admired Coffey for this accomplishment, and I wanted to do it for other stories. In this enterprise I hope to shed light on science, scientists, and perhaps writing about science.

A couple of years ago, I researched and wrote a story on Texans who have won the Nobel Prize. The Nobel story was a subject suggested by an administrator at the college where I taught chemistry for 10 years. He thought that Texas Heritage Magazine, an infrequently published chronicle of things Texan in which he himself had published an interesting story on women in bullfighting, might have an interest in a science story.  As it happened, my story sat on the editor’s desk for about a year, and then it needed updating. Yet another Texas based scientist won the Nobel and I was concerned the story would be published with incomplete information.  I was told that I should go right ahead revising, that my original submission had not been read yet. It was then that I was able to gauge the intensity of interest in my story.

Nobel Prize Texans had seemed a great topic to me, a native myself. One of the subjects of my article was a man who had been my teacher in college, Robert Curl of Rice University. Dr. Curl, along with Rick Smalley and Harry Kroto won the prize in 1996 for their research into the chemistry of buckminsterfullerene. I eagerly read everything I could about the subject, and Dr. Curl pointed out to me early on that there had been two books on the subject [The Most Beautiful Molecule: The Discovery of the Buckyball by Hugh Aldersey-Williams and Perfect Symmetry: The Accidental Discovery of Buckminsterfullerene by Jim Baggott]

An intriguing story it is, and a huge one in chemistry, and yet I remember that in both well-researched books, there were accounts of a controversy which arose during the epidemic spread of bucky-fever through the chemistry community. The vectors of that infection, particularly Kroto and Smalley, proposed a chemical mechanism for the formation of soot, a subject that had been studied since Michael Faraday’s time. The not insubstantial community of scholars in the field of soot did not accept the breezy explanation and somehow the mechanism of scientific argument, that most important step in the generation of knowledge, broke.  That became the story which I propose to tell.

Actually, Baggott and Aldersey-Williams have done a fair job of describing the essential facts of the story, although Larry Ebert, one of the protagonists, has written a scathing denunciation [Carbon volume 33 no. 7 (1995) , pp. 1007-1010] of both books. The story though, is not just the facts in the books, and reading the accounts left me wanting to know how such a situation could have occurred.

A Beautiful Theory is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Getting down and sooty

In 1985, Curl, Kroto, Smalley and their students published a Nature article [Nature (London) volume 318 (1985), pp. 162-3] concerning their observations of what happens when a powerful argon laser blasts graphite in a vacuum; the material blasted off contains a surprising amount of something which has the formula C60. The scientists proposed that this material had an assembly of connected carbon atoms that resembled a soccer ball, or football. They named the molecule buckminsterfullerene. Something about this work touched a nerve in the body of chemistry. The reflex reaction was rapid and intense. Published scientific research and invention activity outstripped all other subjects [Baggot, p. 195]!  Over the next ten years the article was one of the most cited papers which had ever appeared.

Perhaps emboldened by the world-wide acclaim, the authors theorized [Journal of Physical Chemistry volume 90 (1986), pp. 526-528]. The C60, they said, being spherical itself, must be the precursor of soot particles, themselves spherical, albeit containing many things other than carbon, albeit formed in flames with air as an oxidant, albeit many thousands of times larger than a molecule.

The soot chemists, a subcommunity, but not insignificant in size or history, answered this provocative notion. They answered in the way that scientists do – they examined the proposal and experimented to find out how it fit the facts – and then published their findings. Notable among the responses was that of Michael Frenklach of Penn State, and Larry Ebert, an Exxon scientist, who reported early in 1988 [Frenklach, M. and L. B. Ebert, “Comments on the proposed role of spheroidal carbon clusters in soot formation,” Journal of Physical Chemistry  volume 92 (1988), pp. 561-563] that a computer simulation showed that, first of all, if they formed in flames, buckyballs would form too slowly to lead to soot, and further,  buckyballs could not survive the early conditions of a flame and would be converted into PAHs, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, familiar toxic components of cigarette smoke and chief candidate as the parent of soot particles.
Smalley and Kroto in particular, unphased by the soot experts’ reaction, and with an international audience, continued to expound the importance of buckyballs in the formation of soot frequently hinting that it was too beautiful an idea not to be true. They did not answer the specific points of Frenklach and Ebert and the community – they rather cherry-picked the known features of soot (Soot was found to contain C60, see below) for those which supported their thesis.
At the end of 1988, chemistry’s Time and Newsweek rolled into one, Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), published an article [C&EN, August 29, 1988, pp. 33-35] summing up the C60 story. In it, Rudy Baum, then its west coast reporter wrote: “At this point, no process exists to halt the growth of the curling sheet [Smalley, Kroto and Curl’s hypothesis to explain the formation of the spherical molecule], which likely causes the formation of a soot particle with a spiral structure [my emphasis]. Frenklach and Ebert and other combustion scientists noted the presumptiveness of this article and complained to Baum, who abjectly apologized for one-sidedness. He said he hoped to correct matters in a future article [Baum, letter to Frenklach, October 21, 1988].
Although the matter was settled as far as the soot community was concerned – there was no controversy – Smalley and Kroto continued to ignore the serious contradictory results of Frenklach and insisted that the ico-spiral mechanism, the curling molecule explanation for buckyball formation in a vacuum, accounted for the spherical shape of primary soot particles, a claim which was beginning to take hold in the community beyond the experts. In the summer of 1989, Kroto and Ebert presented consecutive papers at a forum at Penn State, where Frenklach was a professor and host. Still unbending, Kroto insisted that the icospiral mechanism was more successful at explaining the chemical genesis of soot than the PAH mechanism, and giving no ground, Ebert disputed every point, reiterating that the well-established presence of C60 in sooting flames [Gerhart, Loeffler and Homann, Chemical Physics Letters , volume 137 (1987), pp. 306-310] was irrelevant.
Finally, in February of 1990, Baum published his promised follow-up article [C&EN, February 5, 1990, pp. 30-32]. Frenklach and Ebert were shocked to see that not only had Baum reported that Smalley regarded them as closed-minded specialists in a “backwater” of modern chemistry, but that Frenklach and Ebert had accused Smalley and Kroto of “pathological science,” a buzz-term for the Pons and Fleischer Cold Fusion debacle. The former was just mild name calling, and Smalley and Kroto probably did do it, but the latter comment, the “pathological science” comment, was tantamount to a curse, or a declaration of war. Frenklach and Ebert denied that they had ever said such a thing. There was, despite a long series of complaints to the editor, no retraction. In the literature, Frenklach and Ebert remain branded as rude critics of the famous buckyball scientists who eventually won the Nobel in 1996.

The Back Stories

How did this chain of events come to be? Why would Rudy Baum so uncritically report what he did in 1988? What did Frenklach and Ebert do to deserve branding as whiners? What motivated Kroto and Smalley? Did any of the protagonists have other goals than the progress of knowledge? I will be addressing these questions and others in these pages. I hope you will join me as I continue the story.