Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.
Honorable errors do not count as failures in science, but as seeds for progress in the quintessential activity of correction.
—Stephen Jay Gould
Most people hear only about the successful experiments in science. What is usually not reported is the fact that for every scientific success, there may be numerous failures and false leads and blind alleys. Most people would find this discouraging, but scientists learn early in their careers that one has to expect a number of failed experiments that can lead us to better ideas. As philosophers of science pointed out long ago, science is about testing and falsifying hypotheses. No number of positive or consistent observations can ever prove a statement true (e.g., “all swans are white”) but a single contradictory observation (e.g., the Australian black swan) can easily prove the statement false. Likewise, every failed experiment points the scientist toward a new direction or a new hypothesis or new experiment, which may eventually prove fruitful. Science is a process of trial and error, and scientists need patience, persistence and determination to reach good results after many letdowns.
Nearly every field in science can point to examples of this. Even after 35 years of doing magnetic stratigraphy, not every locality where I have done paleomagnetic sampling produced good results. The data from those unsuccessful studies are sitting in my file cabinets and the hard drive of the lab computer, but I won’t bother working on them further or try to report them in a publication. Occasionally, I’ll mention in print that a particular area (like the Chadron Formation in the Big Badlands, or the Titus Canyon Formation near Death Valley) produced no good paleomagnetic results, but further discussion is usually not worth writing up.
Likewise, looking for vertebrate fossils is usually a frustrating and unsuccessful exercise. Most paleontologists must spend days or weeks in a field to find anything, and sometimes several field seasons can go by with no worthwhile results. My graduate advisor Malcolm McKenna spent several years collecting his dissertation area at Four Mile Creek in northwestern Colorado before finding good specimens. Louis and Mary Leakey spent decades collecting in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and found plenty of Pliocene-Pleistocene pigs and antelopes and elephants, but not a signal human fossil until their remarkable find of “Zinjanthropus” (now Paranthropus) boisei in 1959. But if paleontologists were not so determined and dedicated, there would be few fossils in museums for us to study.
Similarly, the history of marine geology, paleoclimatology, and oceanography would have never been the same were it not for persistence in the face of failure, and little bit of luck. Back in the early 1950s, the famous geophysicist Walter Munk argued that we needed to develop a technology to drill down to the mantle. Many considered this goal as comparable to our effort to put rockets in space. Since the continent crust is typically over 150-200 km thick, but the oceanic crust is only about 10 km thick, it made sense to fit a drilling rig on a ship and try to drill through the oceanic crust. From this idea developed “Project Mohole,” an NSF-funded effort to build a drilling ship and technology that could drill down to the Mohorovicic discontinuity, or “Moho,” the seismic boundary between the crust and the mantle (the “hole to the Moho” or “Mohole”). The first drilling took place in March and April 1961, when the ship managed to drill down to 601 feet below the sea bottom in 11,700 feet of water off the coast of Mexico. Most of this section was Miocene sediments which were easy to drill, but the basement was oceanic crust lavas, which made drilling much harder. Consequently, they never got even close to penetrating 10 km of oceanic crust. After these initial experiments, the enthusiasm for Project Mohole fizzled out and eventually the project ended by 1966 as the host organization disbanded in a dispute with NSF over control over the project.
Project Mohole failed in its initial plans to drill to the mantle. But it was a smashing success in a different way. The early experiments showed that the technology of the 1960s couldn’t drill too far in oceanic crust lavas, but it did a beautiful job drilling the overlying sediments. As the Mohole project was falling apart, other scientists saw an opportunity: drilling the soft sediments of the seafloor was a much more important goal. They (correctly) guessed that the seafloor sediment records might yield important information about how oceans and climates had changed over millions of years. Since the sediments of the oceans rain down continuously from the surface waters, the record in the deep sea would be much more continuous and complete than any record obtained from land sections.
Since the failure of Project Mohole, the drilling of ocean sedimentary records has been one of the biggest breakthroughs in earth science. These ocean sediments have given us detailed pictures of how climate changed across the globe through time, how mass extinctions occurred around the world, and even helped us decipher the causes of the Ice Ages. For decades, the workhorse of the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) was the Glomar Challenger, the ship originally outfitted for Project Mohole (named after the famous sailing ship, the HMS Challenger, which launched modern oceanography and marine geology in 1872-1876). Then the DSDP was transformed into the ODP (Oceanic Drilling Program), and eventually a new ship, the JOIDES Resolution, took over the next decade of research. Now there is a new Japanese-built “supership”, the Chikyu, which is so huge that it is 700 feet long, and its drilling derrick is taller than the Statue of Liberty! It’s appropriate nickname is “Godzilla Maru”. This ship has a drill string that can reach 10 km down in the crust! So far, its main task has been to drilling through the accretionary wedge down to reach the subducting slab in a subduction zone. But some day the plan is to do what the Project Mohole could not: drill all the way through the oceanic lava rocks and reach the mantle.
Thus, we have come the complete cycle. What was impossible in the early 1960s may finally be achieved some fifty years later. Scientific experiments may not succeed the first time, the second time , or even the 20th time. But they point us in the right direction, and if we persist long enough, we may find success in a completely unexpected direction—or find a new technology that allows us to do what was impossible when we started.