Education

Why The Best Scientists Fail, Again and Again

These researchers agree that failure is an intrinsic part of science. What’s more, they think scientists and inventors who are doing the most interesting research often fail the most—and know how to recover effectively from failure.

It was more than three decades ago, but chemist Geraldine Richmond still remembers it clearly: the first time she felt like her research had really failed. As a young researcher fresh out of graduate school, Richmond was setting up her own laser lab. She had spent days on end using a brand-new laser to collect data on a molecule that a biochemist collaborator had given her to study. It felt like things were finally falling into place. Then, she found out the sample he’d given her had gotten contaminated. 

“I realized that these weeks of running experiments around the clock, and literally sleeping in the lab, were basically all just studying this artifact,” says Richmond. “That was the one day in my career that I didn’t want to get out of bed.”

But she did. Richmond dragged herself out of bed, went on a long run to clear her head, and marched into the lab. She decided she wanted to change the direction of her research to one where she could control her own samples. She started using lasers to study the chemical processes that occur on the surface of water, work that has since earned her worldwide accolades, including a 2013 National Medal of Science. 

“I started this whole new set of much riskier experiments, and I’ve continued in that area of research until today,” says Richmond. “In retrospect, I’m so glad those first experiments did fail.”

It’s a story that resonates with many scientists; at some point, most researchers and inventors realize that one failed experiment doesn’t make their career a failure. Quite the contrary—it can give them the kick needed to look at their work in a fresh way or change gears. 

Driven by curiosity

Through the 1970s and 80s, Steven Sasson was focused solely on one thing: developing the first digital camera. In retrospect, it’s easy to say that he succeeded— in 2009 he won a National Medal of Technology and Innovation for the invention, which is ubiquitous in our everyday lives today. But its path to development wasn’t a smooth one. 

“I had a lot of technical failures, and communication failures and organizational failures,” says Sasson. “I tell people I’m kind of good at failure.”

What does it take to be good at failure? Curiosity, according to Sasson. 

“Your initial reaction to failure should be ‘Why did this happen?’ and not ‘What will people think of me?’” he says. “You need to be driven by curiosity instead of fear.”

Sasson says there were multiple instances when he had a working prototype of a digital camera, only to have it malfunction the day of a big presentation. What’s more, his colleagues were largely unimpressed with his new camera; they didn’t think there was anything wrong with film photography. “I can’t even count the number of times I was told that digital photography would never catch on,” says Sasson. 

But Sasson wasn’t driven by a need to impress people or solve a big problem. He was just fascinated with the idea of taking photos in this new way. So he kept tinkering; each failure taught him something new about how a camera can or can’t work. 

Persistence pays off

From the outside, it’s easy for most people to forget that success in science is rarely reached by a straightforward path, instead pre-empted by lots of small failures. Most of the time, we hear about research when data have finally stacked up to tell a new story, or an invention is ready for prime time. But science is slow, often tedious, and even the best scientists and engineers have notched up numerous failures. 

Andrea Armani, a chemical engineer at the University of Southern California, thinks reminding people how science works is a good thing. And she thinks the publicizing of SpaceX rocket launches over the past decade exemplifies the scientific process to the public better than research usually does; SpaceX has had rockets and capsules explode, satellites lose contact with the ground, and missed attempts to catch and reuse rocket parts that fall back to earth. 

“The public has been able to participate in the failures and then, because of the buildup after failures, celebrate joyously when there’s success.”

SpaceX also underscores the slow pace of research and development, Armani points out. 

Armani’s own first story of failure is one that dragged on for months. She had designed a new type of minuscule plastic device and built it from scratch. It worked on the first try. But to take a picture capturing what it looked like, Armani had to destroy the prototype in the process. Then, she spent eight torturous months trying to make a second copy that worked. 

“It was almost worse than if I had never made it at all,” she says. “It was eight months of having this picture hanging over my desk, knowing it was possible, and failing again and again.”

In the end, she discovered that someone else in the lab had changed the pressure setting on a vacuum chamber she’d used the first time. She hadn’t jotted down the setting or thought it would be important. But the lessons she learned from her months of failures loomed much larger than just “check the vacuum pressure.”

“Having that experience really changed my perspective on how long it can take to do something,” says Armani. “If it doesn’t work the first or second or third time, you can keep trying different things.”

When failure isn’t a failure

Richmond says she feels successful if just 10 percent of her ideas work. For scientists, taking risks in their research—trying to break into a new field, develop a new method for doing something or address a question that no one has tried to answer before—makes them more prone to failure, but also more prone to big breakthroughs. 

“If you don’t have failure, then you are not really studying the unknown,” Richmond says.

Sometimes, what seems like a failure can be a jumping-off point or a lesson; Sasson says most successful inventors learn early in their careers that the process of failing is just one step of invention. 

“Everybody fails at things,” he says. “The question is, how do you adjust? If you’re not adjusting and making changes in response, then you’re basically just pounding on a wall.”

Sometimes, what seems like a failure might be a solution to a problem you weren’t even looking at. Recently, Armani was working with a graduate student to develop a new self-healing material, hoping to use it to make self-healing optical fibers. But when Armani described it to an industry partner, they shook their head. The new material sounded ideal for injectable cartilage, to prevent cartilage tears. 

“You could say it’s a failure because our first idea didn’t pan out, but it’s also this huge success because we’re looking into this totally different sphere now and could do something amazing,” says Armani. 

In many careers, success is easily measured; a job finished, a case closed, a patient treated, a customer helped. In science, it’s harder to quantify; an experiment with a negative result can tell a researcher just as much about the world as a positive result, and a method that doesn’t work can help refine the approach. 

“Failure in science is only a failure if you stay in bed,” says Richmond. “If you don’t get up and learn something from it.”