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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

Celebrating Failures!

December 14, 2011 Leave a comment

As I have seen in my own work of collecting stories of failures and debris from scientists, it is much easier to deal with other people’s failures than your own. Part of it is that you are not as emotionally involved of course, but also, you have a different perspective. Through time and interviews, I find that when you ask people to talk about their failures and they agree to share (and a certain amount of trust must be present between the two parties or else you shouldn’t expect an answer), the stories will often have a happy ending, such as “and then I decided to do this”…). Now, I have compiled the list of my own failures – much harder but also fun to do, especially if there is a bit of time since that last failure. And do you know what? I feel I haven’t failed enough lately… not done enough and not taken enough risks. So, here’s my lastest risk-taking venture:

I have come across a man who claims he will hire people who fail. I am sending him my CV (see for yourself below) and let’s see what he says…

1. He hires me.  I win.

2. He doesn’t reply. I add this to my list of failures. I win

3. He replies he doesn’t want to hire me. I add this too… I won’t be so hopeful that we could start a discussion on the topic… but you never know. I win

In the meantime, this CV is a work in progress. I would love it if you had ideas on how to improve it…

Oh, and it seems I am not the only one suggesting one’s failures should be neatly compiled. Melanie Stefan says it too in Nature no less.

* Update: 3 weeks have passed and still no response from Jeff Stibel. Oh well, I’ll file that failure. Time to move on to the next one.

New Family of Reliquum discovered.

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Making mistakes is not easy. It requires that you tried at least. We’re talking active contributions to the field of failures. Now, we have uncovered a new family of such failures (or Reliquum). It seems that they have been around for a while, but nobody had described them scientifically, hence they are now officially “discovered”: Premature causations.

Making inferences is what we do all day, we need those to help us make decisions. But our brain is not very good at identifying the pitfalls of making inferences, resulting in sometimes disastrous consequences. It is a difficult concept to explain, that correlation and causation are two different things.

These statistics make a great job at explaining – visually – why just because two things happen at the same time, they are not necessary directly correlated. They will show you how to create your own correlation!

Categories: Idea, News, Review, Science

Faster than the speed of light… Could scientists be wrong (again)?

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

The world is a-buzz with the latest news coming from CERN, Switzerland. “What? Particles going faster than light?”

What I like about this is several things:

1. Most of us would be incapable of explaining why this puts into question Einstein’s theory of relativity. There’s this thing about the theory of relativity, which states that no particle can travel faster then light… but what does it really mean?

2. Most of us are excited at the prospect of something so complicated and unintelligible in the first place being called “WRONG”. Of course it’s not “Wrong” per se… it’s just true somewhere else. The same hoo-ha was created when the theory of relativity was shown to be incompatible with Newton’s Physics. It’s not like apples started falling the other way.

3. The scientists are acting the way we romantically wish all scientists would work: they find something weird; they doubt it but they don’t dismiss it; they put their results and calculations out there for all to see, criticise and tell them where they might have gone wrong.

4. In my view, science always corroborate old wives tales… remember when they (finally) scientifically proved that having wet feet might give you a cold? Now, we’ve all moaned about life going faster and faster, and about how hard it is to keep up with changes that appear too fast for us to follow. Now we know why: since Einstein last measured, it seems that particles have been going faster… vindicated!

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.

Categories: Idea, Interview, 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?

Who Got It Wrong First?

We are always debating on who got it right first. To whom the paternity/maternity of an idea should go to. It goes without saying (and is too often not said) that a fair amount of garbage, mistakes would have been produced in the process of producing said idea, and well forgotten.
This idea resurfaced with this nice article reviewing Gavin Menzies’ book on Leonardo Da Vinci about how

  1. he might have gotten his ideas from the Chinese. And I’m thinking “Didn’t everyone speak Chinese in 15th Century Italy ?”
  2. He made some errors. And I’m thinking: “What! Even geniuses are given flax for making mistakes?”

So, in the light of the controversial book, I thought I should unveil some other overlooked scientists / researchers / idea poppers. These underdogs might be unknown to most people but their ideas live, because someone who speaks the right language took up their idea…

Bose / Einstein

Buang / Wallace (and Darwin)

Constantine Rafinesque / Darwin

This leads to the term of the day: “Rafinesquian”, to mean “rejected for having recognized too many genera and species on the basis of very inadequate characters, the term being one of reproach”.

Categories: Educational, Review, Science
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