The 2010 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2

January 5th, 2011

And…we’re back.

Happy New Year, ‘Barkers!  I hope everyone had a nice break.  I am sorry to report that none of you sent me a gift for Christmas.  That’s OK—you can make it up to me by sending homemade baked goods to:

Paul Bracher
Mail Code 139-74
1200 E. California Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91125

I could really use a peanut butter cookie right now. 

It’s time to officially close the books on 2010 with the announcement of the Chemmy Award winners.  I can tell you’re all very excited!  Let’s begin with the easiest three choices:

Accident of the Year:  Preston Brown and the Texas Tech NHP Explosion

I’m not going to argue that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Hungarian sludgefest weren’t bigger accidents, but ChemBark is a blog that focuses on chemical research.  Picking a non-lab-related accident wouldn’t seem right.  The clear “winner” for this year’s award has got to be Preston Brown for his nickel hydrazine perchlorate explosion at Texas Tech.  The accident was a gruesome example of what happens when you ignore standard safety practices and don’t respect the hazards of shock sensitive chemicals.  The story of Preston’s permanent loss of three fingers serves as the latest chemical reminder of what has long been known in the U.S. submarine fleet: “the stupid shall be punished.”

Chemical Villain of the Year:  Dr. Dr. Bengu Sezen

After 4+ years,  Columbia University finally finished its investigation into the alleged misconduct in the laboratory of Dalibor Sames.   The school found—and the Office of Research Integrity agreed—that alumna Bengu Sezen committed 21 instances of scientific misconduct with regard to her work in C-H activation chemistry.  The fiasco resulted in the retraction of several papers.  (I am not sure that anyone has correctly reported the final tally of papers that were either fully or partially retracted.)   I still maintain that the Sames-Sezen case is the worst known example of scientific misconduct in the history of chemistry.  This award will probably be the last one that Dr. Dr. Sezen ever wins.

 Chemical Heroes of the Year:  Nobel laureates Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi, and Akria Suzuki

The palladium boys finally brought home the bacon, and the great number of chemists irked by the absence of a Nobel Prize in structural biology gleefully proclaimed the trio’s triumph as a win for “real” chemistry.  The palladium Nobel was richly deserved and long overdue.  Huzzah.

With that said, the aftertaste of this Chemmy award is the feeling that our field still has no “face”.  Are their any perennial “popular” heroes of chemistry?  Who is the most famous or recognizable chemist in the world today?    Do we want (or need) a Stephen Hawking, Ed Whitten, Murray Gell-Mann, Grigory Perelman, James Watson, Craig Venter, Noam Chomsky, Jane Goodall, or Steven Pinker?  What about a Sanjay Gupta, Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, James Hansen, Brain Greene, Michio Kaku, or Neil Degrasse-Tyson?  We card-carrying chemists nearly all have one or more personal heroes in chemistry, but is it a bad thing that no chemist has broken the bubble to appeal to a wider audience?

Next up:  The best papers of 2010 and the chemical news story of the year

28 Responses to “The 2010 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2”

  1. Matt Says:

    We absolutely NEED several recognizable faces in chemistry. I can’t stress how essential I think this is. The general public finds what we do utterly unapproachable. Many people are willing to be engaged over the details of atom smashers/particle physics, astronomy, genetics and evolution. I don’t know too many willing to delve into orgo, materials, inorganic, analytical, physical etc. The only thing we have going for us is CSI and forensic science, which, on most television shows, ends up woefully mischaracterized.
    Don’t necessarily know the right answer to this one. I think that the Whitesides and Frankel books are a great starting point. Good images are crucial for effective communication of science. Ken Libbrecht’s snow crystal book is also fantastic for this (although, he’s technically a physicist … but I can forgive him for that).

  2. bad wolf Says:

    Is this the Villain of the Year for 2010 or 2006?

  3. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Do you consider the Schon scandal a physics story? I consider it the biggest known fraud in chemistry.

  4. Hap Says:

    I don’t know who came up with the term, but the TT accident and its primary instigator seem to be prime examples of “weapons-grade stupidity” – stupidity that is dangerous enough to not only threaten the holder but also those around him (or her). The problem with weapons-grade stupidity as a source for learning is 1) we think that we can’t possibly be that stupid and 2) anytime it comes out, someone else (other than the stupid party) usually gets hurt. Sometimes the stupid party manages to avoid direct consequence entirely.

    Perhaps the threat of stupidity to others should be a reason to be aware of the presence of gross negligence and to notify people in charge, regardless of “professional courtesy”, because if you don’t bring it up, others may at your funeral or bedside.

    Columbia deserves more discredit – while Sezen was the MC at the dishonesty festival, they hosted the festival, covered up the role of Sames (if any) in the retractions, and allowed innocents to pay the price for her misdeeds, all the while playing the role of Mike Hargrove as the Human Rain Delay.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    We don’t need more recognizable faces, nor public awareness. What has public awareness (or the perception of it, at least) done for Evolutionary Biology? Climate Science? Nanotechnology?

  6. Wavefunction Says:

    – I still maintain that the Sames-Sezen case is the worst known example of scientific misconduct in the history of chemistry

    The “polywater” case seems chemical to me and it was a much bigger deal.

  7. Hap Says:

    I thought that polywater wasn’t really dishonest, though, just sloppy – closer to the meta-arylation or the NaH-mediated oxidation of benzylic alcohols than to Sames-Sezen. S-S has active, massive dishonesty, in a relatively important area of organic chemistry, with obfuscation and passive dishonesty from a variety of sources. I don’t know if polywater was particularly important.

    Mistakes are OK, in general – they are inevitable when you are finding new knowledge. It’s dishonesty and the complicity of people in power in it or its obfuscation that is a deeper problem. If problems in research aren’t corrected, and people are assigned blame according to relative powerlessness rather than guilt, then the basis of public trust in science is a lie.

  8. CR Says:

    Not sure how the “Villian of the Year” goes solely to Dr. Sezen without at least some (1a, 1b) blame to Dr. Sames. Just because Columbia University chose to leave Dr. Sames out doesn’t mean he doesn’t share in the blame.

  9. excimer Says:

    Sezen solely as the recipient of the “Villain of the Year” anti-prize is pathetic. Her actions were reprehensible; so were Sames’. Why is his name not on there as well? Who are we not trying to piss off?

  10. Hap Says:

    I’m sure of being unhappy with Sezen. Columbia violated its own rules (changing them in the process), and their lack of transparency makes it appear that they’re hiding something, so they’ve earned their contempt, as well. The way in which the papers were retracted (and why the eighth was retracted at all), the firing of (some number of) graduate students for lack of ability to reproduce faked research, and the general lack of explanation as to why the papers were retracted falls on Sames, but his role is sufficiently unclear (was he just innocently duped? coconspirator? not-so-innocently duped?) that maybe giving him both barrels isn’t warranted…yet.

  11. Hap Says:

    Just because Sezen is the named villain now doesn’t exclude the possibility that Sames could get his own award when more information becomes available.

  12. Paul Says:

    Sames won the inaugural VotY Chemmy for 2006.

    Edit to add: Here is that old post. That thread generated 135 comments on the old site.

  13. Matt Says:

    What’s the downside to more visibility? The evolution folks have a religious-like following (OK, sure, not the best thing). Climate science really wouldn’t be in the shape it’s in now if the scientists and organizations were better with communication strategy. Nanotechnology. What’s wrong here. A little bit of hype got the field on the move (taking with it many chemists/physicists/chemEs/materials). How is that bad? We can’t just do our science in a vacuum. As long as your research isn’t hyped as being a discovery of extraterrestrial life, you should be OK.

  14. psi*psi Says:

    I’m in total agreement with you, Special Guest Lecturer. And I’m totally down with implementing bits of sharia law in cases of data fabrication. Dude should lose a hand or two for that.

  15. Tt Says:

    All well deserving. What kind if trophy do these impressive people receive? I think there’s an Internet device which sends dog poo in a box, although that honor may be reserved for sezen to decorate her Ph.D with.

  16. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Given the news today, I think Andrew Wakefield has to take the villain prize. Widespread damage to human health, disease and suffering to children all over the world, and an irrational distrust of vaccines by a non-trivial portion of society. It makes me want to vomit.

  17. Paul Says:

    Wakefield has taken the lead for 2011 VotY. For those who don’t watch the news, the famous study that linked certain vaccines to autism has been called a hoax by the journal that published it. The editors write that there is “clear evidence of falsification of data”. There is certainly a chemical element to this story, as many have hypothesized that a mercury-containing preservative (thiomersal) used in these vaccines was the root cause of the autism. That paper was wildly influential, and if the hoax is true, who knows how much damage Wakefield has caused to public health.

    To address SGL’s point of Schon vs. Sames-Sezen, I see Schon as a case in physics. Yes, there is a significant aspect of chemistry in the work, but Schon is labeled by almost everyone as a physicist. Sames and Sezen fall squarely within chemistry. (Maybe we can assign field coefficients to interdisciplinary papers and multiply them by a value corresponding to the magnitude of misconduct?)

    The impact of Schon’s fraud dwarfs that of Sames-Sezen—a combination of 15 papers in Science and Nature alone. That said, another element to consider is how these scandals were dealt with. Serious questions about Schon’s work were raised immediately, and a formal investigation was launched within two years of the first paper. That investigation also concluded promptly—after a summer. In the case of Sames-Sezen, things got very messy. Labmates who brought Sezen’s work into question were dismissed from Sames’ lab, so there was a whole new level of misconduct/negligence. How Columbia dealt with the press, and the fact that its formal investigation took over four years to complete, were also bizarre.

  18. Paul Says:

    On the point of whether or not chemistry would benefit by having a de facto “spokesman”:

    I am torn. I think scientists find the idea off-putting. No chemist is an expert in all forms of chemistry. Shouldn’t the press summon a variety of chemists to comment on the variety of stories in the news?

    That said, news and politics are seldom “about the science.” The concern of parties in these areas is controlling/spinning a message. That’s hard to do when you’ve got scores of different people all making different points—often in disagreement. Also, TV audiences crave personalities.

    I think an intelligent, personable spokesman could go a long way in promoting chemistry and, especially, correcting public misconceptions about the field (e.g., “chemicals are bad”). I’m not sure who’d I’d nominate to do the job. (And who would want the job? It seems like it would suffocate your schedule and ability to do research.)

  19. Stu Says:

    Having chemistry promoted in a positive way in popular culture by a recognisable face or two surely can’t do any harm. Not sure he’s made it over in the US yet, but in the UK, Brian Cox is rapidly becoming the public face of physics and is getting a lot of air time on TV – chemistry would probably benefit from its own Brian Cox or two. Apologies for peddling our content, but we sort of touch on this in our August 2010 editorial – ‘Where are the champions?’ – easy enough to find if you fancy a read…

    Insert by Paul: Link

  20. Hap Says:

    Wow. I thought Wakefield was dishonest before (along with many of his compatriots), but, wow.

    I’m not certain but the effects of that paper (at least on people as opposed to the environment as a whole) may be greater than any of this year’s accident nominees. I guess mass negligent homicide isn’t really out of fashion.

    As for a spokesman – Whitesides is a pretty good choice, though he’s kind of busy. (I’m biased, but I don’t think it’s a ridiculous idea, anyway.)

  21. Brian Says:

    Concerning a “face” for chemistry:

    Now that Sir Kroto is at FSU, maybe we’ll see a bit more of him in the States. He is vocal on a wide range of topics within or related to science (nanotech, education, religion, etc), but is certainly well-versed in chemistry as a laureate. On his recent lecture series, he wrapped up the seminar with a few “preachy” points at the end. For example, he promoted the Vega Science Trust, which appears to be of great potential as a resource and outreach mechanism. He also participated in last year’s “Lunch with a Laureate” program for middle-to-highschool students, which is another great idea.

  22. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    I think “the face” of chemistry needs to be closer to 40 than 70.

  23. Stu Says:

    I second that – Kroto sure can whip up a crowd: his talk at Lindau in 2009 was one of the best; but someone a bit younger would resonate more with the public…

  24. Wavefunction Says:

    I wonder why FSU is a refuge for retired British scientists with previously stellar reputations. Consider- Harry Kroto and Paul Dirac

  25. Brian Says:

    Kroto specifically mentioned Alan Marshall and his high-field lab as a big reason for his move to FSU. A quick glance at Wikipedia’s article on Dirac shows that he moved to Florida to be near his daughter. Interestingly different motivations, but apparently just a coincidence.

    SGL has a good point, but it is rare that someone gains enough experience, exposure, and fame to achieve “celebrity” status outside of the audience of their specific field. Tanaka’s Nobel prize at age 43 is probably the youngest chemist to have achieved that sort of status in recent memory. Then there’s the small matter of the newly christened “celebrity” having the time and/or desire to become a sort of spokesperson to the lay media…

  26. If James Cameron Did Chemistry | I Can Has Science? Says:

    […] but no names or faces that the Average Joe would recognize.  The field needs a hero but, as Chembark points out, what chemist has the time to be a spokesperson?  Research in the lab is notoriously […]

  27. The Chemistry of Caramel | ScienceGeist Says:

    […] more approachable and visible to the general public. Paul ponders this issue at the end of part 1 of his 2010 Chemmy Awards post in his ruminations on whether or not chemistry needs a […]

  28. crystal Says:

    I’m fully agree with your statement that by ignoring standard safety practices and don’t respect the hazards of shock sensitive chemicals….we have to suffer a lot that we can see in case of nickel hydrazine perchlorate explosion at Texas.

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