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Scientists need to talk more about failure

Researchers fail every day. Failure is an essential and inevitable part of scientific research. It is baked directly into the scientific method: observe, measure, hypothesis and then test. Of course, that hypothesis is often wrong. When it is, researchers go back, observe more, get new measurements, come up with a new hypothesis and try again. And again. Despite this, scientific failure is rarely discussed openly. That is why when the University of Arizona astrophysicist Erika Hamden used his TED 2019 call last week to share how her work was marked by setbacks after setbacks, it felt like a radical act. When she spoke, she sometimes seemed close to tears. And yet the talk, whose video is not currently available on TED's channels, was just brave; It was inspiring. "The reality of my job is that I fail almost all the time and continue to do so," Hamden said on the first day of the week-long conference that usually celebrates triumph. Hamden was on stage as part of fellows cohort for this year, a group of promising change makers who are about to reinvent the world. Most people were there to accommodate their impressive work to tell TED why it was so important and incredible that it required the world's attention. Hamden told a balloon that popped. The balloon carries a telescope that Hamden had been working for 1 0 years the fateful night of September 2018. The telescope is known as the weak intergalactic Redshifted Emission Balloon, or FIREBall, and…

Researchers fail every day. Failure is an essential and inevitable part of scientific research. It is baked directly into the scientific method: observe, measure, hypothesis and then test. Of course, that hypothesis is often wrong. When it is, researchers go back, observe more, get new measurements, come up with a new hypothesis and try again. And again.

Despite this, scientific failure is rarely discussed openly. That is why when the University of Arizona astrophysicist Erika Hamden used his TED 2019 call last week to share how her work was marked by setbacks after setbacks, it felt like a radical act. When she spoke, she sometimes seemed close to tears. And yet the talk, whose video is not currently available on TED’s channels, was just brave; It was inspiring.

“The reality of my job is that I fail almost all the time and continue to do so,” Hamden said on the first day of the week-long conference that usually celebrates triumph.

Hamden was on stage as part of fellows cohort for this year, a group of promising change makers who are about to reinvent the world. Most people were there to accommodate their impressive work to tell TED why it was so important and incredible that it required the world’s attention.

Hamden told a balloon that popped.

The balloon carries a telescope that Hamden had been working for 1

0 years the fateful night of September 2018. The telescope is known as the weak intergalactic Redshifted Emission Balloon, or FIREBall, and the job is to measure giant hydrogen particles, which astronomers hypothesize between galaxies. Seeing them can help scientists understand why the galaxies look like they do, Hamden explains, and can help her eventually measure each atom that exists. (You know, NBD.)

“FIREBALL is weird when it comes to telescopes, because it’s not in space and it’s not on the ground,” she said. “Instead, it hangs on a cable from a giant balloon and observes only one night from 130,000 feet in the stratosphere, by space.”

Only one night. Now you start to see why the balloon popping was such a huge failure. And it came, Hamden explained, on top of failure after failure until this night. Sensor. Spegelfel. Cooling system failures. Calibration.

“Failure when you literally expect them. We had a delightful but super angry baby chick that landed on our spectrograph tank one day,” she said, adding that despite the damage the bird did, it was still the biggest day in project history, for a cute baby bear. “False injuries fixed, we got it built for a launch attempt in August 2017 and failed to start due to six weeks of continuous rain in the New Mexico desert.”

And then the cloud and the balloon took flight. “I have this picture taken just around the sunset on that day, by our balloon, FIREBall hanging from it and almost full moon, and I love this picture,” she said. “God, I love it. But I look at it and I want to cry. Because when they are fully inflated, these balloons are spherical. And this is not. It is shaped like a teardrop, and that is because there was a hole in it. “

The balloon sank. FIREBALL crashed in the desert. “We didn’t get the information we wanted, and at the end of that day I thought of myself, Why am I doing this? ” she said.

Not getting data is just about the worst failure a researcher can experience. It is also one that happens every day. Although these failures are common, and even important, they rarely speak openly.

As a journalist, I often try to talk about failure with scientists that I report about and although they are often quickly aware that it is a large part of their work, they are cautious about discussing details. Very rarely do you get a science process story, one in which a researcher will describe every way an experiment failed, and failed again and failed again, until the failed ones taught them enough to get the right answer. If you read a news article about science, it’s almost always about success – breakthroughs, the cure, the mysteries were solved.

At a certain level, this is understandable. No one likes to talk about their lowest moments. And in science, where the work is mainly funded by grants, it can be difficult to get these conversations out in the open. Granting authorities want to see a proven record for success before they risk supporting research. they really don’t want to hear about flops.

“Almost everything that happens in the lab will never make it print. Journal of the Banal Failures and Self Doubt to face day-to-day life in lab does not exist. So much of science goes unreported, “wrote molecular biologist Maryam Zaringhalam in Scientific American a few years ago. “Without failure, we lack a complete picture of science. And a greater shame we lack a complete picture of the scientist beyond the brainy stereotype.”

I have witnessed the destruction of scientific failure on its own, as a scientist’s spouse. I have seen my husband and his colleagues and friends across disciplines lose sleep, lose hope, lose perspective when an experiment fails, a machine breaks and kills all the data, or a grant application is denied. Getting over these setbacks is scary.

And new researchers may be shocked to find out how full of failure research life is. “When I moved from medicine to research was the biggest shock to me failure,” wrote the oncology researcher Eileen Parkes in the journal Nature this year.

Part of what makes scientific failures so challenging is the timetable. Data is collected over months, years, decades. When you have spent so much time chasing a theory and suddenly revealing data that you are wrong, or if the telescope you’ve built crashes, it may feel like the whole of your life’s work crashed.

It took thousands of people and 44 years to get the Hubble telescope from one idea to another. It takes time, it takes a tolerance for failure, it takes individuals to choose each day not to give up, Hamden says.

“It took thousands of people and 44 years to get the Hubble telescope from one idea to another. It takes time, it takes a tolerance for failure, it takes individuals to choose each day not to give up.”

Erika Hamden

Academic sciences have a large turnover and outcome problems – a new study showed that about half of everyone working against an academic science career will release after five years. There are many factors that play a role, including a systemic failure to support parents and unequal pay and prestige along sex, but perhaps the lack of openness about failure only makes it worse. Young scientists who face their first failure can be left feeling as if they are the exception, as their failure says something meaningful about their ability, or that their career is doomed. It can make researchers feel stressed and alone with their failures rather than seeing it as a common part of the process.

“Many students who started scientific degrees with me switched to other majors the first time a project failed. One failure and they were gone.” Sara Whitlock, a student of structural biology, wrote in STAT about the importance of what she called “scientific Resistance “.

Learning not to give up is one of the most important lessons for becoming a successful researcher. Studies have shown that resilience and higher tolerance to failure can keep people in science. But this does not teach in formalized settings at compulsory school. There are usually no classes that teach it, although research shows that specific resistance training, when offered, can be effective. If it learns, it happens privately, in conversation with helpful main researchers, with labmates who have been there, at home or over drinks with empathic ears. It is rarely discussed in stages such as TED or in print or in career counseling with potential new researchers.

“I’ve put so much of myself all my life into this project,” Hamden said last week. And when she asked why she did this, after FIREBall crashed and the data was lost, she thought of Hubble. She thought of the atoms she wanted to measure. “I have realized that the discovery is mostly a process of finding things that do not work, and failure is inevitable when you push the boundaries of knowledge, and that is what I want to do, and so I choose to keep going,” she says and demonstrates the demands on elasticity science, while giving voice to a problem that every scientist experiences but rarely has a chance to hear about so sincerely. It was refreshing to see this talk at TED. Perhaps science conferences and recruitment recruitment programs can follow, giving young researchers the opportunity to feel wrong is inevitable, and OK.

“It may feel like a failure today, and it really does, but it will only be a failure if I give up,” Hamden said.

She doesn’t come. Hamden and her team will start FIREBall again next year.


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