One of the joys of being a redneck perfumisto male scientist is that I can enjoy the two languages of scent – the sciencey nerd stuff of the overly male geek world, and the literary emotional stuff of the overly female perfumista world. Admittedly, I don’t do either one really well, but it’s sort of fun drifting in the middle. There are lots of wonderfully interesting people who blend the two dimensions to varying degrees (or who don’t at all). As the world becomes more accepting of non-stereotypical people, I’m finding more and more company. And the internet, as we all know, really helps with that.
Every once in a while, something interesting happens in both worlds simultaneously. This time, it was a biggie. A Nobel Prize winner. A female Nobel Prize winner – which is (sadly) far too uncommon. Working in the field of olfaction. A paper related to the prize. And the word for the day is retraction. Oooooh.
Fortunately, it’s a lot more of a non-story than it could have been. The Nobel itself gets off virtually untarnished. The dame gets off with a totally justified bullet-dodge. The whole story reduces to a big question mark hanging over a collaborating scientist who is now the focus of the controversy.
Check out the story in these different papers:
- San Francisco Chronicle (brief and to the point)
- Popular Science (digs down to the nitty gritty – definitely the full story)
- China Post (Taiwan – more of the endgame on this one)
- New York Times (what can I say? – it’s just got that Timesian “je ne sais quoi”)
- Nature (a discussion board looks at the topic)
The short story is this. The lady and her colleagues figured out how smell works, mostly at the nose end. The colleague in question did the part where the rubber of the scent signal meets the road of the brain. But they can’t duplicate his work. It’s irreproducible. And although all scientists love to joke about irreproducibility (it happens more often, and for more reasons, than we like to admit), true irreproducibility is the child porno of science. An irreproducible Nobel is almost like a gubernatorial hooker scandal – with a 13-year old hooker who was only pretending to be 13, and was really… You get the picture. Polywater. Cold fusion. Bad, bad stuff.
Speaking of pictures, here is one – from the Nobel Prize press release. You will note that the brain stuff isn’t even on it. As they explain in the PopSci article, the dubious science is only tangentially related to the Nobel-winning stuff.
The brain stuff is basically derived from the images shown at the top of this post. And that’s the part that can’t be reproduced. They (meaning everybody) had said that they (meaning the collaborator) had showed that the signals from scents were correlated to specific parts of the brain. And while that part apparently has been, to some extent, further demonstrated by other means, there are apparently enough problems with the original research that it was decided to retract. And the decision to retract was probably not made lightly. It’s like going to a press conference to tell the world that – yes – somebody in the family did get caught naked in a motel room in some kind of situation that may be really, really bad.
I have some sympathy for the guy who did the irreproducible stuff. The reason is that my own research was – for a short time – irreproducible. I had made a new, but very unstable and very unusual substance, as my main research topic. After I left with my degree, our paper was sent to referrees, one of whom didn’t believe that our spectrum of the new substance was good enough. We had been very close to the problem, so when our noisy but unusual spectrum showed up exactly where we predicted it, we knew that we had succeeded. But one of the beauties of science is that anybody is free to challenge at any point, and that’s why the things that we know through science get to be so damned good. This reviewer wanted to see more and better evidence. And he was going to get it.
The people I had left behind in my old lab had tried to reproduce my work, but they couldn’t. It didn’t surprise me at all. Our new substance is notoriously difficult to work with. Imagine planning an entire day of chemical reactions – literally thousands of chemical operations – and you can’t mess up a single one of them, or you go home empty-handed. That’s what it took to make this stuff. I had learned by the school of hard knocks that my substance has to be served on bended knee. She’s one of those people who walk out of a movie after 1 minute because it doesn’t meet their standards. My molecule doesn’t give second chances. She doesn’t need a reason. She’s a beautiful, picky, self-centered bitch who always gets whatever she wants, or else she picks up her Prada and hits the road. Only guys who worship her ass are even going to get a shot at glimpsing her beauty.
Anyway, they had to fly me back to the university to make this stuff. And to make sure that somebody else could do it the next time, they actually filmed me doing it. I never really thought about it before, but at some level, I think somebody wasn’t sure that I had really even made the stuff. And while I know that my own people believed me, they might well have figured that there was some kind of critical thing that I had either done or not done, that they didn’t know about. Filming me doing this was one of the smartest suggestions that anybody had ever made. And not only that. From my perspective, it would be proof that I’d actually done it. If there was somebody who didn’t believe it, my little video was going to be science – right in their face.
So the bottom line is that my lab buddies made this awesome video of me making this stuff, as I hammed it up for the camera. It was a barrel of fun. I learned that years of fancy schooling had done nothing to remove my hick accent, which showed gloriously in the audio of the home movie. We got a kick-ass spectrum of the stuff, with new, unpredicted details – some exquisite data which matched our claims even better than the earlier data. This new data was like the final nail in the coffin of disbelief. And I got to see my beautiful substance one more time.
So I guess that I have to admit that while – like most other low-life – I enjoy reading about somebody else’s scandal, deep down underneath I hope this dude makes his colleagues end up having to retract their retraction. That would be even cooler. And perhaps even more of a scandal!