Importance of a failed experiment

           India’s recent mission to reach the moon, Chandrayaan 2, has spurred a lot of interest, and I am glad that it is getting the attention it deserves. As we know, the space vehicle was supposed to land on the south pole of the moon but lost communication with earth just before the touchdown. The initial goal of landing the spacecraft was not achieved as per the expectation. The efforts of the people involved in this mission are indeed laudable. Given the drive, commitment and financial support that ISRO has, I am sure they will achieve greater things in the future.

 This event is also a good occasion to talk about the importance of failed experiments in science, and below is my take:

This semester I have been teaching an advanced physics lab course to the 4th year BS-MS students. There are about 23 students, and we have been performing some experiments on concepts such as Thermionic emission, statistics in radioactive decay, electron spin resonance, Zeeman Effect, etc. As you may guess, all these experiments have deep connection to quantum mechanics, and its manifestation is evidenced in the lab.  These experiments are designed such that we can test some hypothesis by formulating them as a question, and the experiments aim to reveal an answer to the posed question. As part of the process, the students explore the basic theory behind the experiment, understand the rationale behind the instrumentation utilized, and perform measurement and analyse the error in them. They are expected to record their observations, and finally submit a report in the form of a small research paper.

Many a times, the experiment that the students perform do not work according to the plan. So they need to troubleshoot the problem, and understand why things are failing. This stage of troubleshooting is where one LEARNS about how to do an experiment. After a careful analysis, they figure out where the problem was, and rectify it to proceed further. This whole process requires attention to details, better understanding of the instruments under use, and importantly a lot of patience. In a way, a lab course, if done in the right spirit, is one of the most fulfilling aspects of science education because it interfaces the abstract knowledge with the real world. So our understanding of the physical world is not only enriched but also we gain some degree of control over it, which is kind of empowering, so to speak.

Now what about experiments in a research lab? Well, the story is even more interesting in this situation. A majority of the times, the experiments that we design in a research lab DOES NOT work. In fact, we will not even know whether the direction we are taking is indeed the most accurate and appropriate one. Therefore, a careful design of experiments guided by hypothesis, and an educated “guesstimation” plays a vital role.  Even with all precautions, we may fail to perform the experiments according to the plan. So the question is: how does one react during such a situation?

This is where the training we get in the laboratory courses is very vital. We need to fine tune our thinking to know what it is to do an experiment. Given the high probability of failure, we need to consider every experiment as a path to learn something new. This means that the negative result what we get should be considered as a feedback to our thought process.

 With this new information from the failed experiment, there are at least two important prospects: First is that it will improve our understanding about the current situation, and throw some light on corrections that we need incorporate in our experiments. The second and more interesting aspect is that it can lead to a completely new direction of research which we may have otherwise ignored. This emergence of new direction is what makes experimentation very interesting. The new, uncharted path that a failed experiment can take us may result in some major discovery or inventions. History of science has a few examples of experiment with negative results that have led to major breakthroughs (for example Michelson-Morley experiment). A caveat to add is that not all negative experiment may result in a breakthrough. Generally speaking, paying attention to the failure is imperative to learn something new, and the same goes with experimentation. In an essence, true progress in experiments (and science in general) can be achieved only by revising it further. Let me conclude by quoting Peter Medawar (Advice to a Young Scientist (1979), 94):

“All experimentation is criticism. If an experiment does not hold out the possibility of causing one to revise one’s views, it is hard to see why it should be done at all.”


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