Princeton’s science labs are buzzing about a $25 million gift from Google CEO Eric Schmidt ’76 and his wife, Wendy, to fund cutting-edge research. Forty-five proposals are under review and promise, President Tilghman says, “the kinds of technological breakthroughs that most funding sources are too risk-averse to support.”
She pinpoints a serious problem: Grant-making agencies have grown cautious lately, terrified of failure. And yet history shows that breakthroughs often spring not from carefully laid plans, but from mischance or even sheer, ridiculous accidents. A stovetop spill heralded vulcanized rubber; the potency of uranium was revealed when a rock was left in a drawer among photographic plates. And great research seldom follows an unswerving path. At RCA in Princeton in the 1950s, David Sarnoff exhorted his team to invent a flat television that could hang on a wall. “There were an enormous number of failures,” says Princeton historian of science Michael Gordin — and instead of TVs, the world got the Seiko digital watch in 1973.
“Mistakes occur all the time and at every turn,” says chemistry professor Jay Groves. “It’s part of the challenge and the fascination.” Bumbles and false starts are absolutely fundamental to the scientific process — so say more than 25 Princeton faculty interviewed recently by PAW. They told candid stories of personal struggles and how, in the worst setbacks, they paradoxically pulled off big discoveries.
If failure is frequent in laboratories, the real world is even harsher, many of the scientists note. “Ninety percent of the time, at least one instrument will have a problem,” says civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Zondlo, who routinely works outdoors. “There’s almost an expectation that things will fail.” When Charlie Gentile at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) invented a handheld device to spot a terrorist carrying a dirty bomb, it excelled in the lab — but when tried out in a crowd, it was overwhelmed by false alarms: Many ordinary citizens hum with biomedical radioactivity. With hard work, Gentile improved the detector. “The probability of getting it right the first time is very low,” he acknowledges. “That’s not going to happen.”
Every scientist fails, even the very greatest. According to a recently discovered diary kept by a female friend of Albert Einstein, late in life the physicist felt deep disappointment at his personal mistakes. His theories pointed to an expanding universe, but Einstein himself refused to believe it; to keep the universe static in his model, he concocted the cosmological constant, a force that counteracts gravity. Later, when expansion was definitely proven by Edwin Hubble, Einstein renounced this constant as “my biggest blunder.” And yet, notes physicist Igor Klebanov *86, since 2000 the cosmological constant has bounced back — as dark energy. “It’s an incredible reversal of fortune, Einstein’s big failure, and it now accounts for 70 percent of the energy density in the universe.”
Failure is the cosmologist’s constant, it seems. In the 1870s, Princeton astronomer Charles A. Young stalked the chimera of Vulcan, a small planet supposedly orbiting between Mercury and the sun, before writing that he was “practically certain” Vulcan did not exist. (Einstein’s theories finally made Vulcan go “poof.”) Later, the Big Bang theory seemed to solve the mysteries of the universe — but recently, Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt has proposed a radical alternative, based on string theory, in which Big Bangs happen repeatedly. “All these ideas, we expect to be replaced,” says Steinhardt philosophically. “We don’t have complete theories. Science proceeds bit by bit.” When he first floated his new idea at a conference, “it wasn’t a very pleasant thing,” as “defenders of the faith” pounced on its weaknesses. Subsequently he revamped his model. “When you encounter failure,” he says, “you either abandon the idea or invent your way out of it.”
In his study of random close packing — trying to understand how marbles sort themselves as they fill a bag — chemistry professor Sal Torquato has invented his way out of numerous difficulties. “Many people before me tried and failed. And I failed in the mid-1990s. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the entire idea was flawed: We really don’t have a good idea of what we mean by ‘random.’ So failure subsequently led to something even deeper.” His insights have led to a horse race among theoreticians to see who can stuff the most four-sided tetrahedrons into a box. Currently Torquato holds the world’s record at 85.55 percent of the void filled up, a fun game with major implications for materials science and communications theory.
In alchemizing failure into success, perhaps the critical skill is to be alert. “You stumble on things in science,” says chemistry professor Michael Hecht. The key is “having an open mind, and when it jumps right out at you, to not ignore it.” Hecht lately has pioneered what he calls “evolution reloaded”: the concocting of viable genes out of ordinary, off-the-shelf chemicals. A million synthetic genes now populate his workplace freezer (humans have only 20,000); he has used some to make cells multiply across a petri dish, creating living organisms that owe their lives to genes and proteins that hadn’t existed before — evolutionary spawn of neither Genesis nor Darwin. It seems that evolution doesn’t require millennia; as Hecht says, you could do it in your garage. This extraordinary discovery emerged after many setbacks, including funding-agency rejections so demoralizing that he considered changing careers.
Alertness paid off handsomely for James Sturm ’79 at the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM). His area is microfluidics — making tiny plumbing the size of cells. After six months of hard work, he hit a snag: The fluid was supposed to move in a certain direction, “but one time by accident it got out of alignment with the array, and some weird things happened that we didn’t understand. It led to a totally new way to sort cells and small particles, by a factor of 100 times better than anybody had invented before. We saw something we didn’t expect. And it’s now used in blood-testing.”