Why Scientists Should Learn to Fail, ‘Fast and Often’

Silicon Valley runs on failure. Its unofficial motto, after all, is “Fail fast, fail often,” and it is the region that gave birth to FailCon, where stories of entrepreneurial failure are badges of honor.

That’s more than just cute marketing. As the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki has written, “In the delusions of entrepreneurs are the seeds of technological progress.” Failures, in other words, are not only acceptable, but beneficial.

Scientists would do well to take that message to heart. For proof, look no further than a recent study that suggests researchers, with the help of computer algorithms, can find nuggets of scientific insight in the failed experiments that gather dust in forgotten lab notebooks.

In a new article in Nature, a team of chemists at Haverford College and Purdue University described how they used a computer to outperform scientists at predicting ways to make crystals. Their algorithm considered not only previously successful experiments but those that had failed — what they call “dark reactions” because the data never become public. Not only did the software work, it worked better than chemists with years of experience in the field at coming up with likely molecules.

The Haverford/Purdue group has created a website, the Dark Reactions Project, to encourage other chemists to share their own failures. “The planning and development of such tools is essential if we are to eventually make full use of our ‘failed’ experiments,” Richard Cooper, a crystallographer at the University of Oxford, in England, tells Nature in a story accompanying the paper. Source StatNews

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