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

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?