Trial and error, experimentation, the understanding that some questions have complex answers or no answers at all, the notion that failure teaches, the acceptance that mistakes can actually guide you in the right direction, persistence in the face of difficulty: These are some of the everyday components of scientific research, accumulated wisdom that can serve us well in many walks of life — from how to face challenges as individuals to running corporations.
Science as a body of knowledge has been painfully built for more than 400 years (if you want to count from Galileo onwards), not because there was an obvious road ahead, but because there wasn’t.
Nature doesn’t tell us what to do, how to find patterns of behavior, how to uncover hidden mathematical laws behind physical phenomena. What we have discovered, so far, is due to our own diligence, perseverance, and creativity. Who would have guessed that the same force that makes an apple fall is responsible for the orbit of the moon around the Earth or the Earth around the sun? Who would have guessed that electricity and magnetism are actually manifestations of a single electromagnetic field that propagates through empty space at the speed of light? Who would have guessed that species evolve due to genetic mutations coupled to the process of natural selection? This accumulated knowledge took a mix of intellectual courage, discipline, and tolerance to error.
Good science takes a balance between low-risk and high-risk research. Although it is harder to get funding for high-risk research, funding agencies know that some of the most revolutionary and creative ideas are also unexpected and often surprising. The word research already tells the story: re-search, to search and search again, until we get worthy results.
But what is a worthy result? For a business, it’s related to its value as a potential sale. To a scientist, to its value as a potential breakthrough that will lead to new knowledge and/or technologies. Often, the higher the risk, the bigger the payoff. The point is that unless we take risks, we will never know how far we could have gone. There is an artful balance between being cautious and being too adventurous.
To find the balance takes experimentation and tolerance for mistakes. If we have little experience climbing, we don’t adventure up a difficult mountain. We aim at improving our skills with every climb and then, after achieving a good base and mastery, we go for the prize. We learn from our mistakes, using failure as a guide. We take risks, but still aim to preserve ourselves in the process. As a climber, we don’t want to fall; as a researcher, we don’t want to invest too many resources in a project that gives little back for too long. In other words, we don’t want to turn persistence into blindness. There is a point where we need to let go of an idea, even if it’s very dear to us. To have a successful project, we need to have an attachment to it, even passion, but if things don’t go the right way at some stage, we must move on. Taking the time to step back and gauge our progress, discuss things with peers, compare the level of progress along the way, these are all procedures we use in science that can be adapted to different endeavors.
If things don’t work out, we need to swallow our pride and accept defeat. Every scientist knows that most of our ideas are wrong. Only a few work out. We keep on pushing forward, but must also be open to criticism and to the weight of evidence.
My grandfather used to say that if you wear a hat bigger than your head, it covers your eyes. Arrogance is a form of blindness. In science and elsewhere, it is better to side with Isaac Newton, who — although not a model of humility himself — famously wrote:
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser