Science, Tech & Environment

If you have ever failed, this show is for you

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Credit: NASA

NASA scientists lost contact September 23, 1999, with their Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft (shown in an artist's conception) just as it was due to go into orbit around the Red Planet. The failure was due to a problem with communication and scientists using different units of measure.

A new show called “Fail Better” at Science Gallery at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, celebrates epic failures. Its premise is that we can learn a lot from our mistakes.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

The show’s curator, Michael John Gorman, says it was inspired by the role of failure in inventions like Thomas Edison’s lightbulb and the celebration of failure in Silicon Valley.

“The origin of the idea was really an interest of mine in the role of failure in creativity and design,” he says. “We wanted to bring together different people to explore how failure is constructive.”

He started by asking great inventors to select their favorite failures. British Astrophysicist Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell selected the Mars Climate Orbiter. It came within miles of the red planet before it blew up. Burnell says that failure was clearly human error. It turns out that scientists were using different units of measure — one team was using metric and the other British imperial.

D'oh!

“But those errors,” says Gorman, “are what ultimately led to the creation of the successful Mars Rover.”

And there seem to be endless examples.

Sir Ken Robinson, someone you may know from his TED talks on creativity, suggested the color mauve be included in the show.

Why? Well, no one ever intended to create such a color. Mauve’s inventor, William Perkin, discovered it by accident when trying to make quinine synthetically to treat malaria.

“Purple at the time was made from sea snails,” says Gorman. “Very expensive. So this was a big contribution to the textile industry.”

The curators also had people write in to them, unsolicited, to tell about personal failures. They received a letter from Alexander Sinclair. Back in 1979, he worked at a record company in England. Some teenagers from Dublin had submitted a tape to the company in the hope of getting signed, or at the very least, noticed. But Alexander didn’t think the tape was up to snuff.

He sent them a polite rejection letter wishing the youngsters luck in their future careers. What he didn’t know at the time was that those youngsters would become the biggest Irish rock band in the country, and one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

And they still go by the name U2.

But one of the best examples of failure is also the most entertaining. Gorman and his crew produced the first full-scale reconstruction of the world’s worst invention. It’s a device to assist childbirth using centrifugal force. George and Charlotte Blonsky, an American couple who had never given birth, invented and patented it in 1965.

How did they come up with such an invention?

Well, they had seen a female elephant giving birth in a zoo. The elephant started rotating slowly before giving birth. And the zookeeper, incorrectly, informed them that this was completely normal. Oops.

“So they patented a device that rotates an expectant mother with a force of 5 g's whilst giving birth,” says Gorman. “It included a net to catch the baby and a bell to ring when it happened.”

Thankfully, it was never made, until now.

But it did offer a cautionary tale to inventors: think before you act.

Just don’t think too much.

There is much to gain from embracing and learning from failure. Just look at Silicon Valley. It operates by the mantra: Fail early, fail fast, fail often.

“Many tech entrepreneurs won’t be looked at unless they have had a few failed start-ups which have taught them constructive things,” says Gorman.

So if failure is good, why do we see examples of policymakers ignoring the mistakes of the past? PRI's The World put that question to Gorman. He answered with this:

“One of the problems in policy is the [policymakers] haven’t been informed by a process of prototyping,” he says. “So that when they fail, the consequences can be significant.”

Gorman says several policymakers are scheduled to attend the exhibition. He hopes they take a cue from design and find a way to test their ideas before they turn them into law. He knows that any such process is doomed to fail, but with luck, it will fail better. 

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