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Learn to Fail (1)

November 22, 2016 Leave a comment

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This month, at the Substation (Singapore’s Home for the Arts), we have seen an unusual School being set up: the School of Uncommon Knowledge. The idea is to bring all sorts of “lecturers” to teach unusual subjects. The Learn to Fail class was part of the this School, and happened on the 13th and 20th of November 2016.

Can you learn to fail? Is failing a teachable subject? What would such a class look like?

Who are the students? What are they expecting?

Here are some answers, drafted after the class took place. Most answers lead to more questions.

Students (Daytime students of law, biomedicine, medicine, anthropology, but also designers, artists, teachers and man-off-the-street…!) came in out of curiosity. Curiosity is the first step towards new knowledge of course. Curiosity is often fuelled by things that don’t fit, and not understanding what is around, and a desire to resolve the puzzle. So the students were already filtered and on the path to understanding failure.

The class was set up as a practical experimental laboratory. And students were invited to try their hands at the experiments set up. Each of the 3 tables proposed a different challenge and at least 2 ways to answer the challenge. There were no rules as to how many times to attempt the challenge, whether you attempted all or not, and whether you tried more than one method. The idea was to try things, observe and be conscious of your decisions and then eventually discuss the “results” with each other by the end of the session.

The first (13th of Nov) and second class (20th of Nov) were set up in a similar way (3 tables), allowing for returning students to get more in depth into their learning (of failing) and understanding of decision-making.

The goal was to show that really failure can be something to aspire to, and not necessarily something that gets you down (It was established that a “safe” environment with no punishment was essential for this kind of exploration). And the rewards are greater when you can take the more risky route. Rewards came in the form of depth of learning and quality of experience.

We also established that it is more enjoyable to acquire knowledge after having wandered and attempted then failed at answering a question, than before any question is being asked (Think about how much more you remember the answer to a riddle if you have spent a lot of time turning the question to try to answer it rather than just being given the answer just after you’ve been asked it)

From the beginning, it was established that we would be talking about SCIENTIFIC failure – as the motor of scientific progress. This was something that took time to define, the goal being to make even non-scientists accept that the scientific approach can be beneficial for other pursuits.

At the end of the second session, we discussed ideas that came with the notion of “Science”, “Small failures” (Those best avoidable and to be avoided), and “Big Failures” (worthwhile and guiltless, to be pursued).

I will soon post the 3 experiments that were pursued during this 2-class session. In the meantime, you can think for yourself about what these experiments might be.

 

Categories: Art, Educational, Idea, Science

Making the invisible visible

There is an exhibition at Le Laboratoire in Paris, which you MUST go and see if you are in Paris between now and the end of June. In fact, it  might well be worth going to Paris just for that.

The exhibition, entitled “La Négation du Temps”, pairs up Artist William Kentridge with Scientist /Science Historian Peter Galison and Musician Philip Miller.

In a video where Kentridge explains his notion of our relationship to time, he mentions that an artist “is someone who makes visible something that we know but can’t really see”. Of course, here, he is speaking about time and how he makes it visible through his work, machines, videos, music.

However, I cannot stop thinking that this is exactly what many scientists do nowadays. Open an issue of Science magazine and what you see are “proofs” through diagrams, photographs and other visual stimulations, of events happening deep into the cells. The difference here is maybe that the scientist wants to “see in order to know”, even though for his article he has to “show what he now knows”…

And nowhere is this more important than for bacteria. We all know that we are covered in them but we don’t see them – I still remember the figures my lecturer, P-H Gouyon gave us, over 20 years ago: “You are made of 10 to the power of 12 cells of your own DNA, but also contain 10 to the power of 14 bacteria”. And unless new soaps are really different from what we used back then, that number is still valid…

And with this I want to ask you: Belly Button Biodiversity, art or science?

Ideas as parasites

March 30, 2011 2 comments

This schematic drawing explains the potential danger of being exposed to ideas. These act as parasites and drain the host of energy. We suggest that the best protection might be ear-masks.

The parasitic cycle of Reliquum (©Isabelle Desjeux 2010)

Extracted from “Reliquum, a Field Survey”, a book to be published in the year, maybe.

Categories: Art, Illustration, Science

Posters for Posterity

February 14, 2011 1 comment

It seems that the Faculty of 1000 would be very keen to have your scientific poster after you’ve rolled it up and left the scientific conference. It is a laudable idea, and should definitely help spread the information about your work-in-progress or these experiments that don’t work, thereby possibly saving time and resource.

Unfortunately, some bug in the program, or else, means that some posters cannot be uploaded. Here, we reproduce in part two posters that got lost in cyberspace and never got uploaded…. talk about failure!

Anyway, now you can read at leisure all about the fru phenotypes, thereby making your own failures much easier to classify. Feel free to send them this way, as the study is on-going and we need to get the numbers up if we’re ever going to predict the future (see previous posts…)

Reliquology I

Reliquology I: Studying Relics

Reliquology

Reliquology II: Study of Reliquum by Distillation, Chromatography and HPLC

Don’t forget: you heard about it here first.

Update: After rejecting the posters to include in their Poster repository, citing the fact that it didn’t fit in either the Biology not the Medicine category, the posters have been accepted. They can be viewed here and here. A short article about failomics also puts the whole thing into perspective

Categories: Art, Poster, Science

Bad Projects Can Lead To Success

Zheng Lab performing "Bad Project"

Trust scientists to twist things around. When you are caught in a  Bad Project, just turn it into an Award-Winning video, et voilà! Withing a few days, the video went viral and it has already attracted well over one million views.

I would like to point to the creative use of plastic pipettes for a bodice, blue bench protection sheet and orange radioactive plastic as fashion statements. What else can you do when you really can’t read the protocol written in Thai and you don’t know what’s in the tubes?

I am guessing their labcoats are so white because they don’t actually use them in their everyday experimenting…

Categories: Art, Educational, Science, Video

Failomics talk: the review

October 21, 2010 1 comment

The talk at Biopolis on September 11, 2010 was well attended. I was hoping to post the video of the event, but it seems like there was a technical failure on the camera side. Never mind, there are other means of revisiting the talk. Today, I bring you some reviews of the talk.

Questions

After the talk, I was assaulted, mostly by students, demanding, and rightly so, some answers to their very pressing questions. Here are some extracts, complete with my answers:

I enjoyed your talk, but I thought it wasn’t complete enough. I wish you could have explained a bit more, and I was even hoping I’d learn how to avoid failure altogether”. That one had me stumped. A brief discussion followed, where my interlocutor remained unconvinced that you can only produce new results by making mistakes along the way.

“I would like to know how you generated the data to produce the figure showing the generation of failures in the lab with time”. Of course, this student was referring to this animation. When I replied that I had walked into the lab and collected information that I then transformed into the animation, he remained skeptical, adding “I don’t think you could call those fractals”. I accepted graciously to remove the term. He remained unconvinced and claimed that whatever method I was using, it had to be “reproducible”. To which I replied that, like in history, you could not follow the exact same set of mistakes twice.

“Do you ever work with other types of failures?” [other than those from biological sciences?]. To this I answered that those were particularly nice to work with because the methodology came with them, but the results should apply to all failures of course.

Overheard: “I thought it might be contemporary art, when she told us she’d been growing her own failures…”. I would say: do not believe everything you hear.

Reviews

From the Prime Minister’s Office:

An email asking me to do a “factual check” on their review. This was done, and the resulting article will be in next month’s Challenge Magazine. The review insists on the “large amounts of failure required for a just a few drops of success” and turning failures into success stories (Paul Lauterbur’s Noble Prize for MRI story).

From a Japanese website

A review published here. I wish I could understand Japanese though.

On Genewired

A review by Dr Erwin Chan (SMU). Dr Chan would like to see the idea refined to get more Singaporeans to see failure as part of the thought-process.

I’d say… we’re getting there. And to finish, the only bit of video available from the event so far… yeah, technology also can fail.

Categories: Art, Review, Science, Talk, Video

Announcing: new educational videos

Grow Your Own Failure, Still

"How To Grow Your Own Failure" (Click to view video)

A new field of study would not be complete without its own set of educational videos. We start with instructions on how to grow you own failure.

In this video, you will learn the basics of growing a failure. It doesn’t require any special tools, material or skills. Remember though, that if you do not manage to grow one the first time, just try again, try better.

Categories: Art, Educational, Science, Video
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