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Are we parasites to our failures?

Science as a Strange Biological Object: Peridinea Hominis ©Rubin Hashim2010

Let’s look at the facts:

I interviewed this bright scientist once, whose name I will keep to myself for the moment (nobody would want their name to appear in a Google search for “science” and “failure”). A senior scientist, himself a reviewer, and no doubt very accustomed to rejecting paper, being on the board of prestigious science journals.

As I asked him to recollect any failures or setbacks he’d experienced in his career, he happily started contributing general philosophical thoughts about the nature of doing science. As much as I enjoyed the conversation, I was hungry for more. I wanted actual facts. I wanted him to spill the beans. I was after the dirty linen, and was waiting for him to hang it all out.

Finally he confessed. “Yes”, he said.”There was this time, when we got scooped. We work on this topic, you see, closely connected to cancer. So, we are hardly the only ones on the topic. And these people published something very closely related to our research. I would say that our paper was better, but no matter. Once the other paper was published, all our research became useless from the publishing point of view. I was mad. I saw red. I was angry. And then I calmed down. And then I decided there was nothing to loose any more. I had this most amazing idea. I put in this proposal, an outrageous proposal. There was no way this could work. But if it did, I would outshine my competitors. The grant went through, and somehow, so did the research. We found the most amazing result. A breakthrough in the field. It got published in Cell.”

So, if he hadn’t received the energy from his failure, he wouldn’t have moved forwards. I don’t think he is the only one in this situation. Look around the various specialist science blogs.People don’t like to be told they are wrong. They will do anything to prove their idea right. And there’s nothing like a crushed scientist to push the boundaries further.

So there, to some people at least, failures is essential fodder. We are parasites to our failures, dependent on them to get our energy for the next big project, and sucking this failure dry until we can’t even remember that’s how we’d gotten the idea in the first place.

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Categories: Idea, Interview, Science
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