Louise Lief

The Art and Science of Failure



Flickr, Mark McLaughlin

Failure is interesting. It comes in endless variations: professional, personal, comical, stupid, lazy, unexpected – to name just a few. You can also mix and match. Though many abhor its bitter taste, in moderate doses failure can be a bracing tonic.

It also makes a good story.

Neuroscientists have discovered that we need to outmaneuver our brain’s expectations, inhibitions and what they call our “oh, shit!” circuits in order to spot possibilities and potential breakthroughs in what appears to be failure. In the crowded field of disappointment, scientists are the grand champions. Some fail more than 75 percent of the time. You wonder how they get out of bed in the morning.

The list below explores how scientists cope, with lessons for the rest of us.


“7 Epic Fails Brought to You By the Genius Mind of Thomas Edison” (Erica R. Hendry, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013)

“I have not failed 10,000 times,” Thomas Edison famously said. “I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” We have all heard about the triumphs of the light bulb’s inventor. This article, based on the book Edison and the Rise of Innovation by Leonard DeGraaf, talks about his flops. There was the noisy, messy electric pen. Then there was the talking doll that sounded like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Both duds, though the technologies he developed for them showed up much later in other people’s products. What’s interesting here is how Edison dealt with these setbacks. “He didn’t spend a lot of time wringing his hands and saying ‘Oh my God, we spent a fortune on that,” says DeGraaf. “He said, ‘we had fun spending it.’”

Two Films:

“Particle Fever” (Mark A. Levinson and David E. Kaplan, 2013)

Johns Hopkins University physicist David E. Kaplan and Mark A. Levinson, a writer/producer/filmmaker with a physics background, succeed in producing an engaging documentary on the most unlikely of topics — physicists’ long and costly search for the Higgs boson, often called the “God particle.” It’s a great example of how good storytelling, combined with inventive animation, humor, and skillful editing (by Walter Murch, who edited the Godfather films and Apocalypse Now), can make even a ridiculously complex subject accessible.

Some of the scientists featured in the film discuss the possibility that the research they have devoted themselves to for decades may prove to be wrong. There is also a glorious moment when hundreds of scientists and the international media assemble for a demonstration and – nothing happens. You can see the “oh, shit!” switch flip on in a hundred brains. (Note: It has a happy ending.)

“Between the Folds”  (Vanessa Gould, 2010)

This little gem of a film looks at the interdisciplinary nature of creativity in art and science as expressed through origami, the art of folding paper. Painter/musician/filmmaker Vanessa Gould, who is also schooled in architecture, design, astrophysics and math, follows ten engineers, artists, sculptors, scientists, and teachers who work in origami. Filming their exquisite work with an artist’s sensibility, she shows how they experience the world through structure, form, color, and patterns.

Failure is the subtext here. Watching what they do and how they work, you wonder what it took to embark on this difficult but rewarding road, and to get this film made. There were, to be sure, many failures along the way.

A Book:

Remarkable Creatures  (Sean B. Carroll, 2009)

Charles Darwin failed miserably as a medical student, then became a second-rate clergyman before he went on to formulate a theory of evolution.
Mary Leakey was expelled from school for making bombs in chemistry class and faking epileptic fits (she was bored) but eventually became a renowned fossil hunter alongside her husband Louis.

Failures both, until they found something that excited their imaginations. Then, there was no stopping them. University of Wisconsin professor Sean B. Carroll chronicles the ups and downs of two centuries of exploration into natural history through the adventurous lives of various scientists who have made major contributions to the field.

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Louise Lief is an independent consultant to philanthropy, non-profits and media, helping mission-driven organizations design, execute and communicate program strategies to achieve their objectives with maximum impact.

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