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Common Reading 2023: Excerpt from Failure: Why Science is So Successful, "The Scientific Basis of Failure" by Stuart Firestein

Excerpt from Failure: Why Science is So Successful, "The Scientific Basis of Failure" — Stuart Firestein

This chapter from Failure: Why Science is So Successful discusses failure’s connection to science, relating failure to the concept of entropy and emphasizing the role of hard work and failure in scientific discovery.

Original Text Link

Discussion Questions

  1. How important do you think failure is in the scientific process?

  1. Have you ever conducted a failed science experiment? What did you learn from it?

Class Activity

Design or find a science experiment that you can do in your dorm or in a classroom. What did you learn from the experiment? Did you make any mistakes along the way? Was your hypothesis proven or did it “fail”?

Introduction — Adam Hansell

In the excerpt from Failure: Why Science is So Successful, Stuart Firestein describes the importance of failures to scientific discovery, and why we need to embrace failures rather than fear them. He describes accidental successes from failed experiments as serendipity, but there is an even bigger strength to explore. With humility, we attribute our results to “standing on the shoulders of giants” and building on the success (or failure) of those who came before us. While personal failures help personal growth, scientific communities don’t throw away useful information. Statistically, we report finding certain results as “failure” (to reject the null hypothesis), but if the experiment is reproducible, that information has narrowed the range of plausible new outcomes. The more you narrow the possible outcomes, the greater chance you have of discovering something new when you look again. Sometimes, the best experiments eliminate the biggest space of “nothing to see here” to pave the way for more focused studies.

With this selection, consider the following: How would you describe the necessity of failure in science personally vs the community? How much failure is needed to recognize serendipity? How many years of study might that represent?

Related Videos

"FAILURE: Why Science is so Successful - Highlights" from C2ST TV

"How failure can be a path into the unimaginable | Stuart Firestein | TEDxSanFrancisco" from TEDx Talks

"Entropy: Embrace the Chaos! Crash Course Chemistry #20" from CrashCourse

"How Two Astronomers Accidentally Discovered the Big Bang" from Great Big Story

Additional Resources

SU School of Natural and Social Sciences

Check out the science majors offered at SU.

The Creation of the Word ‘Serendipity’

This blog post from Strawberry Hill House & Garden looks into the origins of the word serendipity as coined by Horace Walpole.

The Three Princes of Serendip

Read the story that helped inspire the creation of the term serendipity.

The Story of Serendipity

This article further debunks the myth of serendipity in science and lists the factors that help in scientific discoveries.

The Failed Experiment That Changed The World

This Forbes article tells the story of the failed Michelson-Morley experiment and how informative that failure was for scientific understanding.

About the Author

Stuart Firestein is the former Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biomedical Sciences, where his studies focused on the vertebrate olfactory system. Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience, Firestein serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science.


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