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Failure: Why Science Is So Successful

Stuart Firestein

(NY Times)

'Failure: Why Science Is So Successful' is a breath of contemplative fresh air. Stuart Firestein, a professor in the department of biological sciences at Columbia University, is best known for his work on ignorance, including inviting scientists to speak to his students about what they don't know. In a tone reminiscent of Lewis Thomas's 'The Lives of a Cell,' the book is a collection of loosely interwoven meditations on failure and scientific method. Firestein picks up an idea, gnaws on it, then examines it from as many different angles as he can, as in a series of easygoing chats.

He begins with a quotation from Gertrude Stein: 'A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself.' Firestein elaborates: 'Good failures are those that leave a wake of interesting stuff behind: ideas, questions, paradoxes, enigmas, contradictions.' As a bench scientist, Firestein doesn't subscribe to the commonly held story of science as incremental successes punctuated with a few brilliant leaps forward. For him great discoveries arise out of failed attempts that continue to provoke and puzzle. Success requires embracing failure.

His most compelling argument is derived from evolution. Out of a vast number of mutations (which can be seen as DNA failures), most have led to extinction, while only a very small percentage have unpredictably moved us up the evolutionary ladder. Contrary to any notion of a grand design, we are the work in progress of myriad genetic mishaps - with more to come. No one should expect great science to arise without a similar vast number of intervening failed steps.

The spirit of his book is reflected in his wise interpretation of Beckett's famous 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' For FireĀ­stein, failing better means eschewing success when you already know how to achieve it, instead seeking out those areas where mysteries still reside. He encourages trying to fail because it is the only strategy to avoid repeating the obvious.

If we succeed by failing, then we should be freed from the monolithic road to academic tenure; science should be taught as an adventure in failure. With a delightful combination of feigned naivete and keen eye for the messy ways that great discoveries occur, he goes so far as to suggest writing a grant proposal in which you promise to fail better. He knows this isn't how the world works, but nevertheless argues that change will take place 'when we cease, or at least reduce, our devotion to facts and collections of them, when we decide that science education is not a memorization marathon, when we - scientists and nonscientists - recognize that science is not a body of infallible work, of immutable laws of facts. And that most of what there is to know is still unknown.'

Firestein speaks a larger truth grasped, if seldom publicly acknowledged, by most career scientists. If there is any justification for man's ability to overcome his own limits of reason, 'Failure' stands as a shining example.

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