Thursday, June 13, 2013

Being wrong never felt so right

As part of the SURF program, I attend weekly "brown bag" lectures with my fellow undergraduate researchers. Because we all have such diverse interests (from testing cancer treatment to translating Homer!), the sessions are usually designed to address broad topics that can apply to all disciplines.

This week, Dr. Jeremy May, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, talked to us about that great, mysterious entity known as . . . research ethics.

Reading "The Responsible Researcher" before Dr. May's lecture.

For the most part, ethics in the sciences are the same as those in business, politics, education, and just life in general. Don't lie. Don't cheat. Be a conscientious citizen and a good neighbor.

However, because we work on the frontiers of our respective fields, scientists do face unique challenges.

For example, in the 1800s, the French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier argued that Mercury's strange orbit had to be caused by the gravitational force of another celestial object somewhere between Mercury and the Sun. Le Verrier named his hypothetical planet Vulcan and soon received news from other astronomers of Vulcan sightings, seemingly confirming his hypothesis. But, almost 40 years after Le Verrier's death, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity successfully explained Mercury's orbit and disproved the existence of Vulcan. (more disproven theories here)

Urbain Le Verrier, 1811-1877

Was Le Verrier wrong? Yes. But his science was still good. In his time, he was able to offer the best explanation for Mercury's behavior with the tools at his disposal. He did not fabricate, falsify, or plagiarize; he was simply wrong. And it took 40 years and a revolutionary mind to challenge Le Verrier's hypothesis.

This was the crux of Dr. May's lecture: wrongness is an integral and healthy part of the experimental process. As young researchers, we cannot be afraid to get negative results, to learn something that completely shatters our hypothesis, or to be stumped over and over again by Nature as we attempt to unravel her secrets.

Dr. May's message really spoke to me this week, as I am currently reviewing data from our preliminary behavioral tests, and I am discovering previously unnoticed flaws in our experimental design. In a perfect world I would make no mistakes, but then again, a perfect world would have no need for scientists! Until then, I am embracing my wrongness, learning from my mistakes, and trying, trying again!


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