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.