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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