Science and Failure
Amy Timmins is a PhD student at the University of Manchester specialising in Biochemistry, and rapidly becoming a regular blogger of ours! She loves exploring new places, seeing the science in day to day life and dancing with her friends. Today she discusses how we perceive failure, and challenges us to think about failure as something that can be good!
Most people I know have failed at something at some point. Be it a driving test, a mock maths exam, or not burning their toast, failure is simply one of those things we just can’t escape from: it is part of our lives. But is failure always something bad, to be avoided, or can it be something positive, to be embraced?
When I was at school I was always nervous about answering questions. Even when I thought I knew what the answer was, I used to think, “what if I get it wrong, they’ll all think I’m stupid and laugh at me”. I didn’t want to be seen as a failure. I felt under pressure and didn’t want to let anyone down, so I relied on other people to answer the questions, or to ask the possibly ‘silly’ questions I wanted answers to. Sometimes they never got asked, I never found out the answer and I felt frustrated and disappointed in myself. Was avoiding possible failure really the way forward?
Burnt toast: failure or useful learning curve?
I am currently a PhD student at the University of Manchester, and I can now honestly say that I view failure as great thing! Science is a process of discovery that thrives on failure. We test ideas to determine whether or not they correctly describe how the world around us works. In my line of work, if I didn’t acknowledge that an idea about how something might work is incorrect and then respond by moving on to modify or completely change my thinking, then I wouldn’t get very far in learning more about the real world! ‘Failure’ is a fantastic way of learning more about the answers to the questions scientists ask, instrumental in refining our ideas about the way the world works. Suddenly I find that Thomas A. Edison’s declaration of “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”, makes real sense to me! So I seek to recognise my failures, in science or any other aspect of my life, and let them drive me forward as I learn from my mistakes and move on.
Scientific experimentation, new experiences and difficult subjects at school all push us beyond our comfort zone – the safe bit of the world that we already understand. To step out of this comfort zone is to take a leap of faith. And we may make mistakes, our experiments might not work, or they might not show us what we expected or hoped they might. We might fail exams or tests that were just a bit too difficult, or be challenged to rethink our world-view. But just think: where we would be now if our ancestors had never taken risks in the pursuit of knowledge. What if they hadn’t discovered fire or invented the wheel? We would be a bunch of people, sat out in the cold, going nowhere fast!
Mistakes or unexpected results often lead us to exciting new discoveries!
So why do we insist on only publishing research from experiments which have worked? Why don’t we admit to what hasn’t worked too? The trouble is that our society seems often to have a negative perception of failure and its consequences. We live in a culture that fears failure. We see failure as a lack of success and worry that other people might reject us or look down on us because of it. As scientists this can unhelpfully lead us into thinking that only the results that fit with our current ideas, only experiments that worked in the way we expected they would, that ‘prove’ we were right, are successful, significant or important results.
But as a Christian I am not defined by what others expect of me. I am defined by God and his purpose for me. When I live with this purpose in mind, seeking, through my scientific research, to come to an understanding of the amazing world that God has given us, I realise that each failure is precious and significant too. With each experiment I can have confidence in a God who will always love me, mistakes and all. With every ‘failure’ and every ‘success’ each experiment brings, I am able to learn more about God’s amazing world, enhancing my faith, and I look forward to each new scientific discovery free from the fear of failure and rejection. Whatever I discover and whatever questions I have that continue to remain unanswered, as a Christian I am asked to “Trust in the Lord with all
[my] heart” (Proverbs 3:5). There is no room in life to fear failure. Whatever happens when I step out of my comfort zone, I can trust God, embrace failure, and keep moving on.