Thomas Edison is most famous for the invention of the lightbulb. And while the attribution isn’t exactly correct – Edison didn’t create the lightbulb, but rather designed a long-lasting, usable filament – his contributions are no less significant. Commenting on his pursuit of a working filament, which required the testing of many different materials, Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This quote is one of my favorites for both the humor and the accuracy with which it describes the exploratory process.
Failure is an almost inevitable part of exploration. We discover new rules about the world around us by theorizing what those rules might be then manipulating and testing the ones we already know to either confirm or refute our theory. And while as young children we go about this process without inhibition, as we grow older we often hold back for fear of being wrong, of failing.
But as Edison says, refuting our theory isn’t failing, it’s still discovering.
This is something I’ve had to think about with my summer job. My research project has changed from last summer, and I’m in the process of reconstructing a virus’s DNA into a plasmid (a piece of circular DNA that, in this case, serves to hold the viral DNA temporarily) so that I can eventually infect plants. Recently I’ve had trouble getting one of the DNA fragments to bind to the plasmid.
I tried it multiple times, slightly altering my method each time to try and get it to work, to no avail. I was panicking that I was doing a bad job, that the problem was not with the DNA, but with me. My research advisor assured me otherwise. We went back to the drawing board and decided on a new approach that is much more likely to work. While I’ve been set back a few weeks, I’ve still learned valuable lessons, not just in how the science works, but how I approach my work.
For any major you have to be prepared to fail (read: discover). Teachers value the students that take risks. Raise your hand, have a strong opinion, suggest a new way of thinking. You may end up being wrong, but you’ll be that much closer to, like Edison, having a light bulb moment.