09 May, 2006

When experiments go bad

Via Pharyngula via Evolving Thoughts comes this rather entertaining write-up of a physics experiment by a clearly disgruntled physics undergraduate.

The slightly sarcastic tone rather reminds me of my Cell Biology practicals way back in my first year of undergrad Natural Sciences. I generally finished these in a slightly bad mood –they were on a Friday afternoon, and my timetable was so crammed that I got there an hour after most people, forcing me to miss lunch and finish late (and hence miss valuable pub time). Also, the experiments rarely worked; most of them were quite complicated and fiddly (one I particularly remember was trying to get bacteria to take up foreign DNA) so there were myriad ways in which things could go awry. And that’s without considering the perverse bloody-mindedness which inhabits most biological things when they are placed in a lab environment. Being a tad perfectionist I found this quite frustrating, and through the year my write-ups became increasingly sarcastic as I analysed the large number of ways in which I may have been let down by the experimental procedure, the equipment or my own competence.

Strangely, my cynical tone didn’t really affect my marks. I found out why near the end of the year: I finally got an experiment to work exactly right, prompting a full chorus of hallelujahs at the end of my write-up. In response, my lab supervisor wrote that I had done well even on the many experiments which didn’t work right, because I had always tried to understand the failures (apparently my asides also made him laugh – something I can appreciate now I too get dumped with piles of marking).

In hindsight, he was right: you can sometimes get as much out of a failed experiment as a successful one. Failure certainly forced me to think a lot more about how exactly the things I was testing were supposed to work, in order to work out why they didn’t. Perhaps that’s why I aced the lab exam at the end of the year…

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