Scientific Anthology: Failure as a Stepping Stone

Introduction

Failure is often seen as a negative part of scientific discovery. Failure is inherently bad. But failure is not completely bad. When it is not a completely indomitable failure, it provides an opportunity for growth, and quite often is a stepping stone towards success, or brings you one step closer from achieving your goal.

This anthology is a collection of 15 carefully curated pieces which reflect the importance and the nuances around failure and its role in the scientific world. As you will find, failure is not only an irremovable component of science and progress, but a driving force into scientific discovery and advancement.
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Scientific Anthology: Failure as a Stepping Stone

Scientific Anthology: Accidental Discoveries

Introduction

Throughout history many people have stumbled upon a discovery accidentally. Some examples of these accidental discoveries occur when someone is working on an experiment and it results in a completely different outcome then expected. No matter how these discoveries were made, there has been several significant discoveries that happened accidentally in history. These accidental discoveries may produce a physical product, but it also allows people to keep an open mind in their experiments, not knowing what the outcome may be. It is interesting to look at these accidental discoveries and see how one experiment can turn into something completely different. In this anthology, you will find a collection of examples of accidental discoveries. These examples were selected because we believe they have had a significant impact in the world.
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Scientific Anthology: Accidental Discoveries

Is it Good, or Unfair

On Page 216 it say “lt was good for us that Frediani knew nothing about our investigations,” said Laura Heilig. This makes me wonder, why is it good that Frediani does not know anything about the investigations, given his current mental state and his plea, what would him having knowledge on every step the prosecution took to convict him have to do with the chance of conviction. This makes me think that if she had said that then there is a possibility that some strings were pulled illegally. In one of my posts I had elaborated on the fact that Frediani was guilty before proven innocent. Do you think that it is fair for the police or prosecution members to obtain evidence in a snake like way, just to see a man that hasn’t been proven guilty yet put away for life.

Is it Good, or Unfair

Fallacy Assumption

in the beginning of this chapter, Frediani’s lawyer talks about how he needed to know where he was and with who on the day of August 22nd. This makes me think that the prosecutors wanted to pin everything on Paul even with the lack of hard evidence they had. I think that the prosecution had thought that Frediani was automatically guilty considering the heat he was already under. This makes me think of many false convictions that have occurred in the past, there have been countless instances where the prosecution convicts an innocent defendant based off nothing but assumptions. I think that Frediani’s conviction was a little hasty due to the fact that everyone wanted to see him go down. Guilty or Not Guilty.

Fallacy Assumption

DNA Reference

“Tucked away in one of the genes we were studying was this peculiar stuttered piece of DNA that actually gave us the golden key that unlocked the door to [the evolution of genes].” (Weinberg, 113)

Its interesting how this can relate to serendipity in Johnson’s book. They weren’t necessarily looking for this “key”, but through experiment, they found it. Although they were conducting an entirely separate experiment, this breakthrough presented itself. Johnson told us how this can apply to real life situations and this was a first hand testament to Johnson’s idea. The concepts in biotechnology actually range across the whole realm of science, forensic science in particular. Johnson would appreciate knowing that his ideas were brought to life in a separate realm of science.

DNA Reference

Importance of DNA Evidence

She keeps looking, but she cannot even recognize the eyes, not in the whole face.  But maybe she has seen him before?  Or is this just a trick of the brain, dating an instant memory like a tea-stained piece of parchment?- Weinberg (5).

The scene when Helena is asked if she has ever seen Frediani before in court was a powerful moment thus far in this book.  The attacker mentioned in these cases has always had part of his face covered, and although the women were able to identify Frediani as having a similar build and eyes, it is spotty to pencil in Frediani as guilty based off eye-witness reports.  I feel like this particular quote could provide an argument for how someone who has been through such a horrible experience could have an almost mental breakdown when trying to pick an assailant in court, or in a lineup.  Im not trying to say that the testimonies of these women are flat-out wrong, as they know what they have seen, but why leave anything to an eyewitness or even a trick of the brain.  DNA testing from the semen and sweat of the attacker would properly showcase the truth of who broke into Helena’s house that night.

Importance of DNA Evidence

Connected Failures

After reading the last chapter of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas come from it became more clear to me how the process of implementing an innovation is played out. Putting this process into four quadrants I feel helps others understand the time and commitment that must go into fully implementing a hunch or idea. What this made me wonder was in order to reach the forth quadrant when talking about a hunch or innovation, the innovator must have had many reoccurring instances of failure, if these failures for a certain hunch were used in the four quadrant process for another hunch I feel it is more than likely that the process for implementing this hunch would be a lot faster and more efficient. This is relative to the ideas seen in Chapter 3 of Johnson’s book.

Connected Failures

Error

I found this chapter so interesting because it brought up a very different way of thinking about technological and scientific advancements. Not all things are discovered by careful analysis and processes. Things mainly happen because of error. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/38870091/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/t/greatest-accidental-inventions-all-time/#.VryZ9cc-C1s

This list also was interesting to see how many things that are used today were never supposed to be invented!

Error

Get it Wrong to Get it Right

“Two brilliant scientists with great technological acumen stumble across evidence of the universe’s origin- evidence that would ultimately lead to a Nobel Prize for both of them- and yet their first reaction is: Our telescope must be broken.“- Johnson 139

In this chapter, Johnson proves that one of the greatest forces of innovation in the world is, strangely enough, making mistakes. Seemingly limitless amounts of inventions, from Viagra to vacuum tubes, were discovered by accident. This raises the question, “Why do schools tend to punish people so harshly for making mistakes?” I went to a kind of competitive private high school, and when it came to tests and grades (especially when taking the SAT and ACT exams) I was taught that mistakes were unacceptable. People got taunted for getting bad grades, for making tiny mistakes or misinterpreting the questions asked. My friends who went to public high school tell me similar stories, if not as extreme. If schools are supposed to teach us to generate ideas, think freely, and live independently, then why do we so aggressively attack something that is proven to be one of the greatest sources of innovation ever, specifically human error? I believe that this is a major problem with our school system today and it needs to be addressed before more people are misled into putting perfect scores before good ideas.

Get it Wrong to Get it Right

Right vs. Wrong

Ever since high school, my classmates and I have been constantly told ” don’t be afraid to fail.” Yet, most of us strive for perfection anyways. It seems like a thing that is said to reassure some kids, but also as a mechanism to get the top kids even further. This chapter “Error” stresses benefits of making errors, and I liked that because we are not often given reasons why it is okay to mess up sometimes.

“Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.” (Johnson 137)

When you question your work and critique it, you might discover something unintentional, but progressive.

Right vs. Wrong

Success is Not the Absence of Failure

“The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again” (Johnson, 134).

Innovative ideas, most of the time, come from a long process of trial and error. From a young age we are taught to strive for success and are often reprimanded for failures. However, success should not be synonymous with the absence of failure. Plenty of very successful people had to face multiple failures before they hit success. Even Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper company for lacking imagination and good ideas.

Success is Not the Absence of Failure

A Closer Examination of Errors

“De Forest had stumbled across a classic slow hunch… In 1903, he began a series of failed experiments with placing two electrodes in gas-filled glass bulbs. He continued tinkering with the model…”-Johnson p132-133″

 

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Reading Johnson’s Error’s reminded of other experiments and inventions performed by scientists. One of these scientists that created a breakthrough invention was Thomas Edison. Edison invented the light bulb based on idea he had concerning electricity, currents, etc. Although Edison created the light based on science concerning electricity, he did not have an immediate answer to his question. Edison required long periods of experimental testing on a trial and error basis. With time Edison finally reached a solution to a problem he posed onto himself. When asked about his failed experiments concerning the invention of the light bulb, Edison states that he did not encounter failure but found critical data for his discovery. This statement I believe is something that the entire science community abides by because although an experiment did not follow through as planned the data is critical for knowing what went wrong. By keeping these data point in lab notebooks, databases, etc., scientists can formulate a new experiment to try answer their question in manner different than before.

A Closer Examination of Errors

Accidents May Happen

This chapter reminds me of a book I once read titled, Accidents May Happen. This book was about many of the greatest discoveries/inventions that were discovered by error or mistake. For example, the author of the book describes how chocolate chips cookies were created because a baker used chocolate chips instead of regular baker’s chocolate to make a dessert, but the chips did not melt, thus turning the dessert into a what would be called a cookie. This just goes to show how often times, some of the greatest (and tastiest) inventions are created as a result of an error, and that mistakes can be meaningful.

Accidents May Happen

Benefits of Error

“Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.” -Johnson, pg 137

This quote gives an excellent explanation for why making mistakes or getting something wrong shouldn’t discourage you. If you know exactly what you’re doing from the start and things turn out exactly like you planned, you won’t get to learn anything new. You won’t get to take advantage of serendipity, stumbling across something you had no intention of discovering but helps you along anyway.
I think being wrong also forces you to keep an open mindset. Johnson also mentions an experiment in which groups of students were making word associations based on colors, and their answers often became more original when actors in their groups purposefully introduced doubt to the situation. When the students weren’t a hundred percent positive that the picture they were shown was primarily blue, they were forced to stop and think, considering more possibilities.

Benefits of Error

Error drives Innovation

After reading Chapter 5 of Where Good Ideas Come From, I thought it was very interesting to talk about the topic of error. Specifically, I liked how the chapter discussed error in a positive way. Often times, the word error or mistake has a negative connotation. In the chapter; however, error was described as the path to innovation. Essentially, error and mistakes, while can be discouraging, force people to look for the right answer. In looking for that right answer and exploring other choices or options, innovations come about. Johnson states a very powerful quote when he says,

“Being wrong forces you to explore” (p137).

In essence, being wrong isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it can drive the possibility for new explorations. Being wrong means looking for the right answer – it paves the path for new things to be discovered. This is very relatable in science and in research laboratories. Researchers go into an experiment with a hypothesis and prediction; however, the outcome could be totally wrong. This forces the researchers to research further eventually allowing them to be successful in finding a new cure or new treatment. Personally, I can also relate to this because I am in the process of conducting breast cancer research. My professor and I have predictions however we do not know if they will be right and we may fail. In the midst of that failure, we will find something new in a new type of experiment. Thus, this chapter was very insightful in the fact that it turned the negative connotation of error into a positive idea.

Error drives Innovation

Darwin’s Hypothesis

“Without noise, evolution would stagnate, an endless series of perfect copies, incapable of change. But because DNA is susceptible to error– whether mutations in the code itself or transcription mistakes during replication– natural selection has a constant source of new possibilities to test…Error is what made humans possible in the first place” -Johnson 142

Darwin’s theory about where these variations that produced the innovations of life came forms that when a particular organ or limb was heavily used in the lifetime of an animal, it released more “gemmules” that shaped the next generation of its species (Johnson 143). As was later proved by genetics, this theory was wrong.So, as Johnson also says, Darwin erred in trying to understand error (and its successes).

This leads to the idea of wondering why Darwin might have failed at understanding completely his discoveries. He seemed to have made the discovery of natural selection in the first place from the combination of his own observations and the adjacent possible. Did he need to “tap into” the adjacent possible once again to understand the whys behind evolution? Was he trying too hard to independently force another “eureka” moment upon himself? Or maybe he simply needed more time to contemplate any slow hunches about the reason behind his observation, constantly keeping them in the back of his mind while focusing on some other problem. Maybe, if he had “slept on the problem” like other scientists who studied single topics for years at a time, he might have come up with a solution.

But looking at Darwin’s hypothesis about the reason behind the selective traits, and comparing it to the quote above, one can say that the only possible way for Darwin to come up with an idea would have been to constantly try different ideas, revising them when they were in error. Darwin actually was acting like DNA when he subjected himself to an unanswered problem (stressed environment) and attempted to answer it.

Darwin’s Hypothesis

Error – Chapter 5

“Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. De Forest was wrong about the utility of gas as a detector, but he kept probing at the edges of that error, until he hit upon something that was genuinely useful. Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.”

-Johnson, 137

Without error, and determination, many successful people would have accomplished what they did after meeting adversity. Not only does it force you to deal with defeat, it forces one to change the way they think. It makes me wonder about where we would be in this world if people dealt with failure differently. Basically everything in this world has errors, and those errors lead to so many opportunities. For example with technology, there will always be errors that people try to improve, imagine if Apple didn’t fix errors with their first iPhone, something most of us use everyday.

Error – Chapter 5

innovation in error

“but that noise makes the rest of us smarter, more innovative, precisely because we are forced to rethink our bias, to contemplate,….”(Johnson, 148)

So putting us all in a place surrounded by errors can make us more innovative. If you would have told me that error can be good, and that it can help me with ideas, I would have said that you were crazy. I never knew that error could help so much, such as with De Forest eventually ending up with the vacuums tube after assuming that it was a surge of voltage, or the fact that error lead to the realization that plants create oxygen instead of CO2 and creates our atmosphere. So many things have been invented from error, so it now baffles me how we can be scorned for making a mistake, or that fact that we throw these things away. But what also is interesting is putting people in a room and having them intentionally say inaccurate things, because sometimes that could lead to error, but also innovation.

innovation in error

Errors

“The error is needed to set off the truth, much as a dark background is required for exhibiting the brightness of a picture.”-William James

I found this quote by William James very convincing, if one has the drive to never quit.  Growing up, I was raised to never give up at things I truly wanted and it is almost impossible to imagine a world without the many inventions discovered through trial and error.  As Johnson talks about, errors open new doors to the adjacent possible and I too feel they are necessary to find truths.

Errors

Error and Accident: What’s the Difference?

The chapter “Error” focuses on all the inventions and discoveries that were made erroneously. The scientists that invented/discovered some of the most important things in our world (penicillin, pacemakers, and the technology that would eventually lead to the development of the computer) did not intend to do so.

Some of them intended their inventions to be for something else. For instance, Wilson Greatbatch was trying to develop an oscillator to record human heartbeats. By chance he grabbed the wrong resistor and created a device that simulates a heartbeat instead of recording them. (Johnson, 135-6)

Johnson considers this an error. Since it was an active decision that did not produce the desired result, that is true. However, as baseball defines an error, it is “a statistic charged against a fielder whose action has assisted the team on offense.” (MLB, Official Info) If Greatbatch’s actions did not cause another to succeed, was it an error? Should “error” be reserved for more grave actions?

What is the difference here between an “error” and an “accident”? Johnson also labels the creation of penicillin, when Alexander Fleming left a window open and mold invaded a culture in his lab, an “error”. Was leaving the window open an active decision, though? Did it assist someone who would not have succeeded if the action had not been made?

Where is the overlap between “error” and “accident”, and why does it matter?

Error and Accident: What’s the Difference?

Dewey Defeats Truman

Chapter 5 talks a lot about how error and mistakes can be positive. While I am all for learning from my mistakes it made me think of one of the most famous mistakes of all time. In the above picture Harry S Truman is holding up a Newspaper which wrongly printed the outcome of the presidential election the night before. This always reminds to me to not jump the gun and carefully review things which might not benefit from a mistake. I also just really like this picture because it shows that not all mistakes can lead to progress and everyone should be careful of making mistakes regardless of if there are benefits.

Image

Failure or Teamwork

In this chapter it is mentioned several times that de Forest had failed many times while implementing one of his most critical innovations, I was wondering if it would had been more effective in a timeliness sense if other hunches and ideas were connected to his, or was it most effective for him to “fail forward.” This also ties back into the idea that every hunch takes a while to be fully implemented and even with that said not every hunch ends up being fully introduced.I get the feeling that “failing forward” and having a team behind you is what is best for implementation.

Failure or Teamwork