I have an 8-year-old son bent on becoming a scientist. He is very bright but feels he can't make any mistakes and has to be right all of the time. Is there any way I can get a scientist to let him know it is okay not to be right all of the time, and that he has to accept that he will make mistakes before he can become a scientist?
Science isn’t about not making mistakes, it’s about figuring out why those mistakes happen. I’m a synthetic chemist, which means I (try to) make molecules. To be honest, it’s a lot like cooking, but with less tasty results! I weigh things out, mix them together in the right order, heat them up, and hope I make the correct thing at the end.
I try a lot of different reactions each week, and maybe a third of them work. Sometimes, I’ll be making a molecule that someone else has made before, and so I’m really just following a recipe, but even so, it still may not work (there have been a few sad occasions where I’ve dropped things on the floor… oops). Other times, I’m trying to make something new that no one has ever made before (this is kind of like finding a recipe for chocolate chip cookies and then tweaking it to make raspberry cookies instead. In other words, I look up a recipe on the Internet for a similar molecule and then change it a bit), and again it may not work.
When I make mistakes, it’s really important that I don’t give up even though it can be frustrating and that I try to think about why the mistake happened. I spend a lot of time talking to other scientists about reactions that have gone wrong, and we try to come up with suggestions of different things to attempt, so that the recipe works the next time. Also, when things finally do work, the excitement you feel is so much greater than if it had worked the first time.
There’s nothing wrong with not having the right answers all the time. Saying something incorrect isn’t silly or embarrassing, it’s just part of how we learn. I often have discussions with the other scientists in my lab when we’re trying to figure out a tricky problem, and no one’s afraid to say wrong things. Sometimes, thinking about why an idea is wrong helps lead us to the idea that is right. Additionally, there are still loads of stuff that we don’t know yet, so we don’t know whether our ideas are right or wrong. This is what I think is brilliant about science—we’re all trying to come up with answers to unsolved problems. For years, people thought that light was made up of tiny particles (imagine the Sun is sending out millions of tiny balls of light), and then they changed their minds and thought that light was more like a wave (this time, the Sun is sending out light like ripples on a pond), and now people think it is actually a combination of both (sounds crazy right?).
What’s really important about being a scientist is trying to think of an idea that best explains the evidence you have. If that evidence changes, perhaps because you do more experiments, then you might also need to change that idea.
So, mistakes are not only a normal part of a scientist’s life, but they can also actually lead to some unexpected discoveries. For example, saccharin, an artificial sweetener, was discovered when Constantin Fahlberg (a synthetic chemist like me!) didn’t wash his hands after leaving his lab, and then when he ate his dinner found that it was extremely sweet. He realized the sweet flavor must have come from a chemical he had been touching and managed to work out what it was. Another happy accident led to the discovery of penicillin. Penicillin was the first antibiotic, a drug that can fight infections, and it was critically important during World War II to treat soldiers’ infections. The scientist Alexander Fleming had left his desk in a bit of a mess while he was on vacation. He had left a pile of Petri dishes (little plastic trays you can grow bacteria on), and one of these dishes had become contaminated with mold. When he returned, he saw this dish and noticed that the mold had killed the bacteria. He then figured out that this mold could be used to kill bacteria that cause diseases in people, and this mold became Penicillin. (I would like to add an immediate disclaimer that you really should always wash your hands after being in a lab, and it’s best to not be messy!)
So, in the words of Samuel Beckett, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Discovery of saccharin:
Discovery of penicillin: