Shall we call it the Age of Deceit?
In a carefully worded statement, Lucent Technologies confirmed last week an independent committee of scientists had concluded that "one member" of a research team at Bell Labs "engaged in scientific misconduct by falsifying and fabricating experimental data between 1998 and 2001."
According to the Christian Science Monitor, which helped break the story last July, the perpetrator of this misdeed appears to Jan Hendrick Schon, one of Bell Labs' top scientists.
The announcement comes a week after Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory fired Victor Ninov for falsifying a 1999 experiment that was supposed to have led to the discovery of two new elements.
And these are just the latest in a string of scandals involving scientific and medical research over the last few years.
Once-Golden Bell Labs Is Tarnished
This latest bit of bad news stuck a chord in me.
Perhaps because it was Bell Labs. As a historian of the digital revolution, Bell Labs has always held a special place in my admiration.
After all, it was there in 1940 that Russell Ohl held a brief demonstration that changed the world. Taking a bar of specially prepared silicon, he attached an electrical lead to each end, and then closed the circuit through a voltmeter.
As the scientists standing around expected, silicon being an insulator, the voltmeter showed no current. But then, with a nice sense of drama, Ohl pulled out a flashlight and aimed its light beam at the center of the bar. Suddenly, to the amazement of the assembled scientists, the current jumped.
"It's called a semiconductor," Ohl told them.
Standing among the observers was a young physicist named Walter Brattain. Intrigued, he promised himself to start investigating this new phenomenon as soon as he had the time.
He didn't get that time for six years. World War II got in the way. But Brattain never forgot. And when he was finally free again, he teamed up with John Bardeen to investigate the solid-state physics of semiconductors — and to see if they could build a semiconductor switch that could duplicate the performance of vacuum tubes.
They reluctantly sought the help of the prickly genius of Bell Labs, William Shockley … and between the three of them, they invented the transistor.
Once a Sire to Silicon Valley
The transistor not only kicked off a revolution in electronics and computing, but when Shockley went home to California to start his own transistor company, it also led to the birth of the modern Silicon Valley.
Shockley proved to be such a terrible boss that his top young scientists — the Traitorous Eight, as he called them — walked out to found their own transistor company, Fairchild Semiconductor.
It was Fairchild, of course that not only invented the first practical integrated circuit, but also, when it too blew up, seeded Silicon Valley with today's chip industry. Thus, Intel, AMD, National Semiconductor and all of their descendents are the step-children of Bell Labs.
But Bell Labs did more than that. By readily licensing transistor technology in the late 1940s to all comers, the Labs also can be credited with spawning the electronics age in the United States.
Moreover, Bell Labs continued to be the primary inventor of new semiconductor technologies all through the 1950s and early 1960s — thus it can also take partial credit, at least, for the telecommunications and computing revolutions.
And that's just in solid-state physics. The laser also came out Bell Labs — thus, everything from weapons to surgical tools to DVD players. It was at Bell Labs as well that Arno Penzias used a radio telescope to find the residual 'noise' of the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe.
Not surprisingly, scientists at Bell Labs over the years have won six Nobel Prizes. Now, apparently, it is a place of liars and cheats.
In the End, Was Anything Real?
So, it seems, is everywhere else — major corporations, accounting firms, the halls of government, college engineering and history departments, the newsrooms of major newspapers, and even church confessionals.
Such is the nature of our time. As we watch one trusted and influential figure after another being led off in handcuffs, or fired, or suspended "pending an investigation", it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe anything that happened in the 1990s was actually real.
The executives of our biggest corporations were swindlers, our hot start-up companies were bubbles, our trusted spiritual advisors were molesters, our news was phony, our great scientific discoveries were fabrications, our history was plagiarized, and, of course, the president of the United States was a liar, a perjurer, and, something we've tried very hard to erase from our minds, a possible rapist.
And it all seemed like so much fun when the party was going strong.
I used to know a man, a true New Yorker, who had lived both in Manhattan and on the Left Bank of Paris during the Roaring Twenties. He had even met Lindbergh as the great aviator was toasted around the City of Light.
Dick was 93 years old now, still drank a martini every night, ordered dinners in French, visited art galleries and ran to catch the bus each morning.
I used to talk to him about the Jazz Age, and the Big Hangover that followed. But even for someone who had been at the very epicenters of the 1920s, it had all seemed like a dream, a blur in a raccoon coat that roared down the road until it crashed head-on in to the Great Depression.
"It all happened so quickly," he would say, "And then it was gone."
A Bubble By Any Other Name
A favorite modern game among pundits and writers on culture is to come up with a tag name for the decade just passed and for the one we've just entered. Tom Wolfe, for instance, nailed the '70s beautifully as the "Me Decade."
The game of naming the 1990s was already well underway by the middle of the decade, when Generation X seemed a defining force. But they're long gone, taken off their nose rings and gone looking for work.
Then, when the bubble was still effervescent, the Internet Age seemed perfect for the Zeitgeist. But the bubble burst. Worse, it now turns out to have been inflated with the hot air of swindlers, sociopaths, cooked books and con men.
Now, as new scandals, like the one at Bell Labs, seem to break each week it becomes increasingly apparent that the '90s were, in fact, a gigantic lie, a Grand Illusion perpetrated by thousands of people in almost every walk of life, all in a cynical attempt to short-cut their path to money, power or influence.
How better to describe it than "The Age of Deceit." … Or how about "the Lyin' '90s?
Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” is editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to Forbes.com. And you can talk back to Silicon Insider via e-mail.