Replace Your Radios

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, December 30, 2005

When I was a graduate student my car was vandalized. It occurred on a cold winter evening in back of a house, where I had parked to attend a party. The neighborhood was so benign I had not even bothered to lock the car. When I walked out I was greeted by a hole in the dashboard. Evidently some thieves set out to steal my radio, successfully pushed it back into the cavity with a stick, and then discovered that the car had a metal plate that prevented removal of radios. It must have been a bunch of kids. Professionals would not have made such a mistake. Professionals would have just stolen the car. The radio was ruined, but that wasn't what mattered. What mattered was that these people had violated my space and purposefully disrespected my property (which I had bought with my own hard-earned money). It felt as though they had assaulted my body. It took me weeks to recover. I never replaced the radio.

Many Koreans are feeling a sense of violation over the recent revelations that Prof. Hwang Woo-suk falsified some of his cloning results. The full extent of the falsifications is not yet known, and wiser heads are waiting for the facts to come in before passing judgment. However, the scientific details aren't what matters. What matters is the disrespect for truth, some of which is confirmed by Dr. Hwang's resignation from Seoul National University. It is like an assault on the body.

Koreans can take some comfort in the fact that neither I nor anyone else I know blames them for this development. Instead we are thinking to ourselves: "Those people are experiencing the same trouble we had before them. We wish we could help them, but unfortunately we cannot. They must walk through this particular fire alone---just as we did."

The allegations against Prof. Hwang are strikingly similar to the actual misdeeds of Dr. Hendrick Schoen, a Bell Labs physicist whose case I know particularly well through my own research. Like Prof. Hwang, Dr. Schoen claimed to have made a cutting-edge discovery with enormous commercial potential. He published a series of astonishing papers, some in very prestigious journals like SCIENCE, that were widely cited. He also received strong support from his management, who aggressively promoted his work in public and bragged about the patents (and potential profitability from them) to stockholders. He also received immense honor in his native country (Germany) that culminated in an offer to run a laboratory with a large research budget. He also got nominated for the Nobel Prize. He also got exposed through a whistle blower from his own laboratory, although in his case it was through a leak. The leaker told the press where to look for evidence in plain sight: graphs published in different journals and reporting measurements of ostensibly distinct samples looked different in their gross characteristics but had exactly the same tiny noise features. The impossibility of such a thing left no doubt that the graphs had been fabricated.

These two cases also share an emotional intensity tied to national pride. The Schoen affair revealed profound weaknesses in a legendary US institution, the birthplace of the transistor, the solar cell, the laser, the computer language "C", unix, and innumerable other important technological inventions. Those weaknesses were symptoms of shifting economic realities that would eventually destroy the institution. The Bell Labs that swelled our breasts with pride when we were younger has now vanished into history. This is not something I enjoy talking about.

However the analogy with what happened in the US suggests to me that this painful experience with Dr. Hwang will wind up having a positive effect on the Korean sense of self, no matter how it comes out. After a period of gloom in the spirit of Han, I think Koreans will find that they were stronger than they thought. I don't mean that they don't need heroes, but rather that their heroes need to be like trains: if you miss one, you catch the next.

The cases of Dr. Hwang and Dr. Schoen both demonstrate clearly the difficulty we all have striking a proper balance between truth and openness on the one hand, and economic value and secrecy on the other. Koreans should not feel too guilty about not having found the right compromise, given that people in other countries have not found it either. Perhaps all of us need to move on and replace our radios.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]