“Productive Stupidity” or “Failure Is the Only Way to Win the Nobel Prize”

I wanted to point people toward a really good article that appeared in the SPIE Professional back in October 2009 entitled “Productive Stupidity” by Martin A. Schwartz. It’s a reprint of his article “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”, which previously appeared in Journal of Cell Science 121, 1771 (2008). The thrust of the article is that “science is supposed to be hard,” and most of the time you’re going to be wrong… at least if you’re doing it right. That fact can be extremely difficult to accept, especially when we have built our entire education system around getting answers “right” on an exam. Even classroom laboratory research is generally focused on reproducing a certain result, rather than self-discovery. The upshot is that most science students leave college still believing that getting the “wrong” result is bad. If you are truly doing new research, then you are testing things that no one has done before, and that means that most of the time what your experiments reveal will not be quite what you expected.  Figuring out the how and the why of unexpected results is what scientific research is really all about. (As Celia recently discovered over at Ph.D.)

And just to drive this point home one more time, I encourage folks to listen to this interview with 2009 Physics Nobel Laureate George E. Smith. Around the 11 minute mark he talks about what it was about the Bell Labs environment that made their discovery of the CCD camera possible. He summarizes it this way:

In the exploratory efforts we had… we thought that if half of the projects you started actually worked, you weren’t being imaginative enough… not taking enough risks.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Optics Education, Philosophy of Science, Science in Action

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One Comment on ““Productive Stupidity” or “Failure Is the Only Way to Win the Nobel Prize””

  1. aseoptics Says:

    Just a quick note to say “Thanks” to my good friend at Skulls in the Stars who was nice enough to give a plug for this website in general, and for this article in particular. -Damon


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