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Mistakes in Science and Art

November 16, 2011

In Brain Plague, the artist Chrys has a mutant visual receptor that causes her to see infrared. Her vision might look something like this infrared photo–a landscape that is real, yet surreal.

What if she accepts the “micros,” microbial helpers–and they take over her brain?  People make mistakes. Another character who carries micros says, “I can’t afford mistakes.” Chrys says, “I learn nothing, except by mistakes.”

Art is full of “mistakes,” such as portraits of bodies with impossible proportions.  Science–like art–is full of great mistakes.

Louis Pasteur’s assistant (1882) forgot to inoculate the chickens, and left on vacation.  Later he used old, decayed bacteria. Chickens didn’t get sick, so he tried again. To his surprise, the chickens still didn’t get sick. Discovery:  Immunization

Christiane Nusslein-Vollhard (1980)  Mutations in X-rayed fruit flies caused developmental mistakes such as legs growing out of antennae. Discovery: Homeobox HOX genes

Pfizer scientists (1996) conducted trial on experimental drug for hypertension in older men. The trial failed, but men refused to give back their meds. Discovery:  Viagra

What famous creative mistakes do you remember?  When are mistakes NOT worth the risk?

  1. November 16, 2011 11:47 pm

    Nutrasweet – chemist (stupidly) put his fingers in his mouth and it was incredibly sweet. He was awfully lucky it wasn’t something caustic.

    • November 17, 2011 10:00 am

      Reminds me of the time I was pipetting bacteria cultures by mouth, back in my undergraduate days. (That dates me pretty badly–yes, it was legal to pipet by mouth then. And required, to pass lab courses.) One time I sucked too far and got a taste of bacteriophage. It was not sweet.

  2. November 17, 2011 12:30 am

    I once worked at an R&D chewing gum lab for Lifesavers. I was a lowly lab assistant, and green to boot. But one day I mixed together some flavors on impulse, and the scientists got very excited–they loved the new taste I had created! They asked me how I made it, but I couldn’t remember–and I broke the cardinal rule of the lab–always keep notes! They fired me, but I learned the importance of proper lab procedure.

    As to mistakes, they’re nature’s greatest teacher, but they cannot be allowed when it would endanger the health or safety of people. This is the difference between Dr. Mengele and Dr. Schweitzer.

  3. November 17, 2011 10:01 am

    How do we “not allow” a mistake? Aren’t mistakes by definition the things we don’t “allow” to happen?

  4. November 17, 2011 5:46 pm

    Okay, okay –bad phrasing–but there is an approach to research that is similar to X-treme sports, and then there is the plodding, ever-so-careful approach–one of which is fine, if we’re talking crash-test dummies–it can even be fun. But the ones that involve innocent people, even volunteers, must use extreme restraint.

    That is why I never even considered a career as a doctor or a nurse or a pilot…any job where I would be responsible for others’ welfare–my personality is not suited. But I did through a huge TV console off a cliff once (in the pre-David Letterman days, when people weren’t always throwing things off roofs) to see what would happen. But I was uncomfortable, even as a father responsible for just two children, with any possibility that others would be hurt.

    And it’s not my fault, Joan! My dad was an ex-Marine and he was always saying stuff like, “If you hurt yourself I’ll kill you!” or “Then, just don’t make any mistakes!” In his world, people allowed or disallowed whatever happened. Thus I often do not allow myself to make mistakes (I make them anyway, of course).

  5. November 17, 2011 5:48 pm

    I just typed ‘through’ instead of ‘throw’! oops!

  6. November 17, 2011 7:20 pm

    Here are two examples of the same mistake. Anecdotally, much of the pharmacological work on Echinacea is bogus, because the lab techs didn’t know what Echinacea angustifolia looked like, and collected the wrong plant for their experiments. Second story (from the 1980s), an early gene jockey went out collecting a group of obscure mustards from California. He took them back to his lab, ground them down, and found out that he actually had two undiscovered new species among his samples. Wonderful! The problem was that he’d taken such crappy notes that he couldn’t figure out where he’d collected them or what they looked like. For all I know, they’re still out there, waiting for a more careful collector.

    I’ve heard from botanists for years that it’s easier to train a field scientist to do genetics work than to train a lab jockey to work well in the field. In my experience, this seems to be true. The problem is, of course, that old fashioned field programs are getting slashed everywhere, especially since we have these fancy new technologies that will make field training irrelevant. I think the world will miss field scientists when we’re gone, but it’s going to be difficult to get college administrators to see this.

    And that’s not even going to the Chumash shaman level. Yes, I’ve met one. When I asked her about where she collected a particular species, she said she had hundreds of different plants across southern California that she collected from (in this one species), because each one had different properties. Here’s a traditional healer who’s exploiting the genetic diversity of a wild species to medicinal effect. Our mistake, as a society, is that we’re not good at using the intricacy of her knowledge. We want bulk standardized extracts to work with, something that says “here’s what “the” herbal properties of this species are. She’s doing something entirely different. According to the pharmacologist who works with her, she’s fairly effective too, but there aren’t many like her left. Fortunately, she does have at least one apprentice.

    • November 17, 2011 8:19 pm

      Microbiologists have had a similar situation, in that genome sequencing techniques advanced to reveal millions of new “species,” most of which could not be cultured. And nobody was passing on the art of culturing. But in recent years, with new applications for environmental organisms, there is an upsurge of interest in culturing the unculturable:

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