This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Well Meaning Cheating

Over at The Chem Blog, there have been a series of posts dealing with cheating in science. As this has been discussed in many forums over the years, I really don’t have much to add other than mentioning that there is one aspect which is rarely discussed – the well-intentioned falsification of your data by someone else. Back in grad school, I was determining a reaction mechanism using labeled 95Mo. After conversion of the various Mo products into MoO42-, it was easy to measure the isotopic enrichment using 95Mo NMR. To test out the technique, I prepared a sample of 95MoO42- and gave it to the NMR guy for analysis. The resulting spectrum was beautiful! A nice symmetrical peak with very little noise. Of course, since I wanted to run a fair number of samples (each sample required 2.5 hours) and since the NMR guy was busy, I soon realized I would have to run them myself if I planned on finishing my degree before my advisor retired. So I learned how to run the instrument and eventually analyzed the sample again for practice. The spectrum looked something like this.
(OK, so I added the boat, but you get the idea. The little stick in the water was the Mo signal)

WTF?! How did I screw this up so badly? I asked other grad students for help. I repeated the analysis with another sample. I tried everything I could think of in my rather limited repertoire of NMR tricks. Nothing I tried made the spectrum look any better. Finally I located the NMR guy who had done the original analysis and asked him what he had done to get such a good spectrum. It took me a little while to figure it out, but I eventually realized that he had prettied up the spectrum a little before giving it to me. Looking back at the original data, his original spectrum had looked a lot like mine, but then he had MANUALLY ZEROED OUT THE ROLLING BASELINE, POINT BY POINT, until I had a nice sharp peak with zero noise. Then he had blown up the spectrum until the small blip looked like a giant Gaussian peak. Needless to say, I never let him run a sample for me again.

Of course, it never occurred to him that he was cheating or manipulating the data. He just figured he was doing me a favor. The moral is: If you depend upon someone else collecting data for you, make sure you always see the raw data.

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