Failure is Always an OptionBy Jessica Morgan August 7, 2015 one response
“Fail.” It’s all you need to say these days to describe a particularly poor performance in any of life’s arenas. That guy fell off his bike in an amusing way? Fail. Truck crashed into a low overpass? Fail. Fingerprints all over your laptop because you thought it had a touchscreen? Fail. The fail meme even has levels of fail, and woe to those whose fail has achieved “epic fail” status. To fail is to be the subject of ridicule and belittlement. “You had one job,” moans a particular subset of fail memes. You were given a simple task to accomplish, and you failed. Now look at what you’ve done.
Yet, the many epic fails we encounter as scientists and engineers can lead to our biggest successes. The ability to continue to try for success even after numerous failures is the secret to success in engineering. As I’ve discussed before, the Wright brothers would never have flown without countless failures, each one resulting in an incremental improvement in their glider and eventually Flyer designs.
But sometimes, the failure to accomplish a stated goal results in the resounding success of accomplishing something you never set out to do. A famous failure more than a century ago occurred in Paris, where Henri Becquerel was convinced that the energy from the Sun could cause phosphorescence (that eerie glow some things get when illuminated with a blacklight) in certain rocks. To prove this, he’d set rock samples on top of paper-covered photographic plates and let them sit in the sunlight. Sure enough, when he developed the plates, there was a clear outline of the rock samples present on the plate. The rocks had emitted energy and exposed the photographic plate even when the sunlight itself couldn’t get through the thick paper. Becquerel was eager to repeat this experiment, but unfortunately for him the days of February 26th and 27th, 1896 were overcast in Paris. Disappointed, he left his rocks and photographic plates in a drawer in his lab.
On March 1st, Becquerel opened his desk drawer and decided to develop the plates, expecting the silhouettes of the rocks to be faint or nonexistent since they hadn’t seen much sunlight. To his surprise, they were as clear or clearer than the silhouettes left by the samples that had bathed in sunlight for an entire day! He tried to figure out what had gone wrong, writing:
“One hypothesis which presents itself to the mind naturally enough would be to suppose that these rays, whose effects have a great similarity to the effects produced by the rays studied by M. Lenard and M. Röntgen [x-rays, discovered just weeks before in January of 1896], are invisible rays emitted by phosphorescence and persisting infinitely longer than the duration of the luminous rays emitted by these bodies. However, the present experiments, without being contrary to this hypothesis, do not warrant this conclusion.”
Becquerel had failed to prove a link between the Sun’s energy and the energy of the phosphorescent rocks, but he kept experimenting. Using non-phosphorescent varieties of the same ores, he found that they were just as capable of producing shadows on a photographic plate, even though they never emitted a visible glow like their phosphorescing relatives. Now Becquerel had accidentally discovered something that would change the world. The rocks he’d been using were uranium salts, and the mysterious energy which had emanated from them even in a darkened desk drawer was later named “radiation” by his doctoral student, Marie Curie.
This is just one of the many accidental discoveries and fortuitous failures in the history of science that resulted in a significant discovery. Alexander Fleming’s famously untidy lab led to one of his bacteria cultures becoming contaminated with a fungus from the Penicillium genus, which killed his bacteria sample and led to the first antibiotic: penicillin. The Michelson-Morley experiment, which tried to discern properties of the aether, ended up failing so spectacularly that it helped prove that there’s no such thing as a “luminiferous aether” at all, leading eventually to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and a total rethinking of the field of physics.
Too often, we think of science as continuously marching forward, always perceiving more and more of the natural world and bringing the phenomena that govern it into ever sharper focus. But we should always remember that failures are as likely as successes to teach us something new about the world around us. The student who puts together her apparatus “wrong” can still run experiments and see what happens. A group whose mousetrap-powered car doesn’t run has a golden opportunity to learn why. We need to let students experience the failure of their attempts to grasp scientific content. Rushing in to “fix” what has gone wrong for them denies them the chance to seriously analyze the issues at hand. Yes, it takes longer to learn something by trial and error, but the chances of that understanding being lost by the time the test rolls around are much lower.
Of course these students won’t be discovering penicillin or radiation (hopefully) with their failures. But if they are ever to become successful in science, they must first be allowed to fail.
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