The 2011 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2

January 5th, 2012

The results have been tabulated, and it is time to announce the recipients of the Chemmy Awards for 2011! Following our centuries-old tradition, we begin by bestowing the statuettes on the winners of accident, hero(ine), and villain of the year.


Accident of the Year
The Boston College Thionyl Chloride Explosion

Yes, the tsunami-induced disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was a much bigger story, but like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010, it had more to do with engineering than chemistry. And while the fatal lathe accident at Yale occurred in the chemistry department’s machine shop, that horrific story also seemed not to have much to do with chemistry; the deceased student wasn’t even a chemistry major. The nitric acid explosion at Maryland was certainly a chemistry accident, but it did not measure up to what transpired at Boston College last summer. It was at BC that a grad student injured herself in a minor explosion while working with thionyl chloride. Rather than call the authorities, she inexplicably fled the blood-spattered scene and drove home. Concerned labmates later discovered and reported the accident, and emergency crews were dispatched to the student’s apartment to decontaminate her and treat her wounds. The accident—and its needlessly convoluted/expensive/disruptive aftermath—made the local TV news in Boston (1 2) and led to a thoughtful discussion in the blogosphere about the safety of working alone (1 2). Unfortunately, I don’t believe a final post mortem (including the cause of the accident) was ever released, but the major lesson was clear: report accidents promptly so they can be dealt with in an efficient manner.

Hero of the Year
Dan Shechtman

I don’t want to fall into a trap of continually granting the award to the most recent Nobel laureate, but in the case of Dan Shechtman, the Chemmy for Hero of the Year is richly deserved. The story of Shechtman and quasicrystals is one of perseverance and vindication. Shechtman’s peculiar discovery of a material with ten-fold symmetry was roundly ridiculed by experts in the field of crystallography—including the venerable Linus Pauling—but in the face of this immense pressure, Shechtman stuck by his analysis and waited for the field to come around. Under this intense pressure, the director of Shechtman’s research group wanted him to leave for bringing disgrace to the team, and it took two years to finally get the seminal quasicrystal work published. It was then that the really intense pressure started, but Shechtman held firm to his ostensibly counterintuitive analysis, which ultimately withstood the scrutiny of the community.

Also in the running for hero of the year were John Schwab (a champion of organic-chemistry funding at the NIH who retired this year), Rosie Redfield (who took it upon herself to do some of the “arsenic life” experimentation that Felisa Wolfe-Simon should have done), and Ahmed Zewail (who assisted with the political revolution in his native Egypt).

Villain of the Year
Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling remained dead in 2011, but the Nobel Prize announcement certainly raised several skeletons from his past. Before I lambast the man, let me start by calling attention to the fact that I rank Pauling as the greatest chemist of all-time. That said, he had his share of spectacular failures. Pauling missed the structure of DNA, his work with vitamin C was pure medical quackery, and his unrelenting dismissal of Shechtman’s discovery of quasicrystals was outright wrong. What was so villainous with regard to Pauling’s behavior in the last case was that he used his bully pulpit in the crystallography community to personally disparage Shechtman alongside the idea of quasicrystals. Pauling famously said, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists,” and he mounted a relentless, vocal crusade against the idea until his death. Shechtman’s idea would ultimately prevail, and he summed up the situation quite nicely to the RSC: “At first I was alone against the world. In the end, Linus Pauling was alone against the world.”

There were a number of other contenders for this award. In 2011, the release of the results of Columbia’s investigation into the misconduct of Bengu Sezen finally verified the egregious nature of her conduct, first reported (here) in 2005. The actions of Felicia Wolfe-Simon in the wake of the “arsenic life” story were also worthy of reproach. Finally, Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent link of MMR vaccination to autism also came to light last year.

Next up: the Chemmy Awards for the biggest news story and best papers of 2011.

28 Responses to “The 2011 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2”

  1. Unstable Isotope Says:

    Great choices! I am especially in love with the Shechtman story although I knew nothing of quasi-crystals before the Nobel was announced. Pauling genuinely deserves the villain award because using his huge platform to bash another scientist was classless, even if Pauling had been right in this case. It just goes to show how often geniuses can fall into crankery later in life.

  2. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Nice list, but while it was certainly uncool of Pauling to personally attack Shechtman, I think it’s unfair to name a dead scientist villain of the year when he is not around to defend himself and when his transgression happened years ago. This could set a precedent.

  3. Jay Says:

    Check out this book, if you haven’t:

    “Cathedrals of Science” by Patrick Coffey (Berkeley)

    This book revises all the bashing scientists did to each other, from Arrhenius to Pauling, passing through Nernst, Haber, Lewis, Langmuir, and some others. You’ll be surprised how much these prominent scientists kept stabbing each other in the back and in the front, out loud and in the Nobel secrecy. It’s like reading your family’s history mixed with pulp fiction, betrayal, conspiracy and Nobel prizes.

  4. Bryan Sanctuary Says:

    I heard Pauling talk about vitamin C a long time ago and started chewing tablets. Many scientists as they age seem to turn to the “origin of life” and Pauling’s case did overshadow some of his great achievements. I had not known of his criticism of quasicrystals. I would not call him a villain however because he obviously believed he was right, but I agree to use one’s prestige to debunk ideas is wrong.

    On this note, in Physics, there is Bell’s Theorem which says Nature is non-local (no one understands this–called quantum weirdness too). This has been disproved but the disproof has not yet been accepted, but it soon will be and non-locality will be toast. That error by Bell has persisted since the mid 60s and misled physicists many of who think non-locality is a real phenomenon.

    However Bell also believed what he found, but what makes him a bit of a villain in my eyes is that he found an error in the work of John von Neumann, the famous mathematician and the father of the modern computer. This is what Bell said:

    “Yet the von Neumann proof, if you actually come to grips with it, falls apart in your hands! There is nothing to it. It ‘s not just flawed, it’s silly….When you translate it into terms of physical disposition, there’re nonsenses. You may quote me on that: The proof of von Neumann is not merely false but foolish.”

    To me this disingenuous statement can also be applied to Bell’s flawed non-local idea–nemesis.

    So I think the word Villain should be used for people who intentionally mislead, or hold back science, like the Positivist Ernst Mach.

    On the other hand, people might not think Mach deliberately misled. A real villain was

    Ranjit Chandra

    who blatantly faked date so people would buy his vitamins. If you look up faked data, then it abounds: even Gregory Mandel faked his data when he recorded the height of his pea plants.

    I think a villain is a villain if the intent is malicious.

  5. Unstable Isotope Says:

    I’d argue that Pauling’s intent was malicious. He was trying to ruin Shechtman’s career. He was also indulging in what is referred to as “shooting down” – aiming his considerable clout and influence at someone much more junior and less powerful than he is. It’s amazing that Shechtman kept his career. Suppose he had to wait a few more years for someone to confirm? What would have happened then?

  6. Hap Says:

    I think Wolfe-Simon’s actions after the NASA paper were worthy of reproach but not enough to make her a villain – I think “villain” requires an intention to do harm. Wakefield and Sezen both seem far more worthy of that designation. I don’t like to think of Pauling that way, but thinking that you’re right (and then that the other side is wrong, and worthy only of destruction) has always been a good excuse to indulge in evil that could not be rationalized under other circumstances.

  7. Aspirin Says:

    I will call Pauling a stubborn old man, not a “villain”.

  8. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    I’d go with Wakefield because his deception has been a key piece of the anti-vaccination idiocy that threatens public health.

    The quasicrystal story is a great to highlight on the “hero” side because of Shechtman’s courage, but the world is not demonstrably worse off as a result of Pauling’s bullying. I suspect this behavior is quite common, but in this case it has risen to prominence because of the fundamental nature of the discovery and the (admittedly cool) narrative that the underdog was vindicated in the end.

  9. raquel Says:

    Maybe recalling Spiderman would useful in evaluating Pauling as a villain: “with great power comes great responsibility.” If you are a superpowerful chemist, shouldn’t you be extra-cautious that your mistakes (yes, geniuses should know they can make mistakes too) do not cause the disgrace of another human being?

  10. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Yes, but it seems that Pauling was convinced of the scientific merit of his own argument. Although he did unfairly personally malign Shechtman, his main concern was still Shechtman’s science which he was convinced was wrong (and he did publish several papers to this effect). I think you need to demonstrate personal character assassination or the willful dissemination of malicious information with the express purpose to destroy someone’s reputation as a primary goal in order to label someone a “villain”. To my knowledge that wasn’t the case with Pauling.

  11. Friday chemical safety round-up | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] announced the 2011 “Chemmy” award winners, with the prize for accident of the year going to the Boston College thionyl chloride […]

  12. raquel Says:

    This sounds pretty malicious: ”There is no such thing as quasicrystals,only quasi-scientists,” but maybe it’s that I believe that there should be no room for personal attacks in science… :)

  13. Szymon Bartus Says:

    Paul – nowhere you have mentioned that this is somehow a special edition of Chemmys – the 2011 was the International Year of Chemistry. I think that for promoting chemistry this way the UNESCO and IUPAC should at get a honourable mention. On the other hand, I noticed no major events or celebrations at my chemistry department…

  14. wolfie Says:

    You, Paul, idiot, have never read the Accounts of Chemical Research from 1995, when Linus Pauling had to comment on the Holy Grails of Chemistry at the time. It was enlightening what he wrote in his letter, and what chemistry can achieve and what not.

  15. wolfie Says:

    Open to anyone, even non-subscriptioners:

  16. Bend Says:

    You designation of Pauling as a “villain” seems to have provoked quite a response. I throw mine in with those who deem this award pure baloney. Andrew Wakefield perpetrated a fraud that resulted and continues to result in death and suffering from preventable disease, but “villain of the year” goes to Linus Pauling who is guilty of… what exactly? Not knowing when to concede an argument? Acting like a jerk? Sure he used his position and reputation to advance his viewpoint and he called another scientist a name. If I had position and reputation, I’m pretty sure I’d use them to advance my opinions and who among us hasn’t badmouthed another scientist. It may not be civil, but it isn’t unnatural or unusual. I’m not even sure if Shectman was the worse for Pauling’s poor treatment of him. On one hand, here was a Nobel laureate and chemistry legend who was vigorously and vocally disagreeing with him. On the other hand, the fact that such a chemist took such a passionate interest (even if the interest was antagonistic) highlighted the transformative potential of Shectman’s work. Had Pauling not been so opposed to the idea of quasicrystals, would the rest of us (and the Nobel committee) paid as much attention? Pauling was an a$$hole, but villainous behavior isn’t calling someone names. Villainous behavior is killing people (children in Wakefield’s case). What you have here is a failure to accurately comprehend scale. Since this is the internet, I’m going to draw a political comparison here. Pauling is a villain only in the same sense that President Obama is a communist because he wants to raise the marginal tax rate of the top income tax bracket a few percentage points.

  17. Paul Says:

    Look, we’re talking about heroes and villains inside the world of chemistry or in a chemical story. I understand that you’re going to typically associate villainous behavior with truly evil people, but here, you’ve got to tamp that down. I mean, if you’re going to have a problem with Pauling as a villain, you’ve also got to have a problem with Shechtman as a hero. It’s not like he took a bullet from an arsonist then ran into a burning building to save a litter of newborn kittens. In the context of chemistry, I believe both awards are warranted. Finally, you can also look at the terms “hero” and “villain” as substitutes for “protagonist” and “antagonist” in a story, here, the story of quasicrystals.

    Andrew Wakefield is a disgusting human being, but the story of his vile behavior has little or nothing to do with chemistry. It was a medical story. At first, I thought there was more of an element of chemistry to it because of thiomersal, but I don’t think that the compound is used in the MMR vaccines that Wakefield “studied”. Wakefield deserved this year’s award for villain as much as Muammar Ghaddafi or Jared Loughner.

  18. Bend Says:

    Wakefield did publish on thiomerisal, but not in his 98 Lanclet paper. All of his papers have significant biochemistry claims and his patents, for “autistic enterocolitis” detection kits and “safe MMR vaccines” are biochemical in nature. Many people say that Shectman’s quasicrystal work is really physics. I don’t take that position; chemistry is diverse and inclusive, but the logic you use to exclude Wakefield could apply to exclude your hero.
    It’s a fair point about employing “hero” and “villain” figuratively or as hyperbole, but hero is a much more flexible term than villain. We have sports heroes, for example, but even if you hate the Broncos, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone call Tebow a villain. Dennis Rodman? Maybe. And in Wakefield you really do have an actual, honest to God villain who used (abused) chemistry to the destruction of innocent life. Instead, you give the ignoble award to a dead old man who was guilty, not of scientific or academic misconduct, but of behaving unprofessionally.

  19. Paul Says:

    Wakefield is not a chemist, and that news story has practically nothing to do with chemistry. His name has appeared exactly once in C&E News, and that was in a 2005 newscripts/throwaway piece on the back page.

    In contrast, the Shectman/Pauling story centered around the Nobel Prize in *chemistry*. Wakefield’s name has no business in a discussion of chemistry awards.

    People have been labeled as villains for far less than what Pauling did. In sports, there’s Isiah Thomas. In music, there’s Kanye West. In politics, you have Ralph Nader. You can argue that these three men have also been heroes at some point in their careers. Add Pauling to the list.

  20. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    In addition, Pauling was never unequivocal about his treatment of Shechtman right from the beginning. From what I have read, he seems to have lost it toward the end. In fact Pauling and Shechtman met in several meetings where they had cordial discussions and agreed to disagree. Pauling even invited Shechtman to his office to explain his results; again, the two cordially disagreed. It was only in one particular meeting (where unknown to Pauling, Shechtman was present) that Pauling let loose and that was very unprofessional. But to my knowledge, Pauling did not carry on a concerted campaign with the express intention to destroy Shechtman’s reputation. He was just erroneously convinced that Shechtman’s science was flawed and that Shechtman was a bad scientist. It’s also worth noting that Pauling had criticized (sometimes personally) Dorothy Wrinch’s ideas about protein structure much more vociferously. In that case he turned out to be one hundred percent right, but the point remains that most people would (and did) call Pauling a stubborn man who occasionally attacked other scientists personally, rather than an outright villain.

  21. Paul Says:

    From this article:

    “People just laughed at me,” Shechtman recalled in an interview this year with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting how Linus Pauling, a colossus of science and double Nobel laureate, mounted a frightening “crusade” against him, saying: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

    After telling Shechtman to go back and read the textbook, the head of his research group asked him to leave for “bringing disgrace” on the team. “I felt rejected,” Shechtman remembered.

  22. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    The chemist and writer Istvan Hargittai who knows Shechtman for several years and also knows several other players in the arena has a fairly detailed account of this episode in his book “Drive and Curiosity” that doesn’t make it sound like Pauling was mounting a “crusade”. In such cases the victims of the accusation can sometimes overstate their case a bit (and in this case, who wouldn’t? It’s Linus Pauling). On a related note (and I don’t mean this facetiously), how about naming Shechtman’s head of research a villain? Telling him that he “brought disgrace” on the team sounds as bad as anything else.

  23. wolfie Says:

    “Look”, he says. My own doctoral father said this to me when was already 70, and almost (not yet) retired.

  24. Rebecca Says:

    Pauling aside, thank you for raising visibility on the Boston College explosion. I had missed that important story earlier this year. It will be good fodder for discussion with my group. Thank you thank you thank you.

  25. Steven Sullivan Says:

    But…did Pauling make fun of Shechtman’s *hair*??


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