Succeed in Science by Failing

In Hollywood and other fiction, there often appears a misconstrued depiction of a research scientist. A crazy-haired, white-lab-coat-donning researcher pours over his lab bench, shuffling through notebooks and mixing vibrantly colored solutions in beakers, and suddenly has a moment of clarity – an “aha!” moment signifying an incredible breakthrough and making way for dreams of Nobel Prizes, knighthood, and immortality. Research typically isn’t conducted in this fashion; there aren’t usually shouts of “Eureka!” as if striking gold in 1840’s California. Instead, research more often progresses by gradual improvements upon past experiments, marked with many failures and puzzling results (and lots of frustrated exclamations).

This is partially because scientists are just ordinary people who happened to stumble into a career that inspired them to spend lots of time investigating physical phenomena. It’s not much different from the

This week, for me, was mainly a week of failures. During the past few months, I’ve been learning to make transistors by evaporating gold electrodes onto silicon wafers, which are just like polished, blue, opaque glass, and depositing a semiconducting material on top. The process of fabricating and testing a device takes about 2-3 days; the wafers have to be cleaned thoroughly and then prepared for deposition. On Tuesday, I started cleaning some wafers, but they shattered into pieces during a fairly mundane step of the process. Failure number one.

I prepared two more wafers and was about to deposit a solution that enables the gold electrodes to be evaporated on selected areas of the wafers. The deposition involves dropping the liquid onto the wafer and spinning it on a machine at 4000 RPM to quickly evaporate the solvent, leaving a thin layer of dried material. A vacuum typically holds the wafer onto the spin-casting machine, but the vacuum failed and caused my wafer to fall off, ruining the deposition. I had two wafers, and this happened for both wafers during two different steps, even after checking the vacuum. Thus, the second failure.

I cleaned these wafers off and started over, but I have reason to believe the cleaning process was inadequate. I finished every step of fabrication; the gold electrodes were in place, and after nine straight hours of work on a single wafer, I was one step away from a transistor. All that was left was adding the semiconductor. The last step ruined the devices. Since they weren’t thoroughly cleaned, a small layer of material was left on the wafer and a solution of toluene ripped the gold electrodes off of the wafer. The devices were ruined, and I had to start over the next day. Instead of testing the devices on Thursday as I originally planned, my devices won’t be ready for testing until next Tuesday. More failures.

But join me in ignoring the negative connotations of that word. I once took home a bronze medal from a local wrestling tournament. If I remember correctly, there were two other wrestlers I faced that day, which means I lost to both. This prompted me to cross my arms and pout; I am a loser, I explained to my dad. He told me that because I tried, because I failed, I was not a loser. The real loser was the wrestler who didn’t even show up that day in fear of failing. He went even further. The real loser was the wrestler who didn’t learn anything. I wasn’t a loser, he explained; I was a learner. So, failure isn’t bad – it’s the greatest opportunity to learn.

It’s probably not a stretch to say that every scientist has failed – even those with unparalleled genius, like Isaac Newton. Newton’s theory of gravitation, which has been instrumental in the exploration of the physical world, did not just hit Newton in the head like an apple falling from a tree (as many legends purport). Newton’s research was pocked with mistakes and failures. It’s reported that he referred to an old nautical text to see if his prediction of the Moon’s orbital period was accurate. Sailors had previously used the distance between the Earth and the Moon, along with the time between revolutions, to calculate the speed of the Moon’s orbit.

A frustrated Newton found that his value was off by about 15%. As it turned out, the sailor’s manual was actually referencing a nautical mile, which is longer than a normal mile since it accounts for the curvature of Earth. What’s the difference between a nautical mile and a mile? It’s about 15%. Newton didn’t realize this at the time though, and it may have delayed his theory of gravitation by a few years. He was not discouraged by his failures; rather, he spent his time exploring other scientific areas, leading to revolutionary breakthroughs in mathematics and physics.

After one of my failures earlier this week, I showed one of my labmates my shards of broken silicon. He looked at me with pity as I explained what happened. “Oh well!” I said, “I just have to get back to it and try again.” I’ll probably be presented with even more chances to fail throughout the pursuit of my PhD. It’s nearly inevitable but what is more important is how I respond to the failure. I can wallow in self-pity with broken shards of glass and inoperable devices, or I can learn something and continue exploring other options. I think this last option is ideal. Besides, if I fail, I’m in pretty good company. Newton had his own failures and is regarded as one of the most eminent physicists ever.

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