• Question: have you ever made a big mistake

    Asked by sept499spy on 24 Jan 2024.
    • Photo: Martin McCoustra

      Martin McCoustra answered on 24 Jan 2024:

      We all make mistakes and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so. Making mistakes is a very useful way to learn to avoid them in future and sometime takes us down interesting scientific pathways.

      I sometimes think, however, the we are often doomed politically to repeat the mistakes of earlier generations!

    • Photo: Zoe Vance

      Zoe Vance answered on 24 Jan 2024:

      Not that I know of! I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my work but I do a lot of confirmation/double checking and they usually haven’t been at a stage where they were difficult to fix. At worst I might have had to break the news to my supervisor that my exciting new result was actually just a mistake in my code…Or accidentally crashed a server other people had work running on… Working entirely with data analysis/coding means it’s typically a bit easier for me to go back and find/fix a mistake because I can go back and check the code and just fix it and run it again. But it’s entirely possible I’ve made a mistake I don’t know about yet somewhere in work that’s published and some other scientist might find it in the future. This is the great/scary thing about having your work out there for other people to read and check!

    • Photo: Nathalie Oguntona

      Nathalie Oguntona answered on 24 Jan 2024:

      I’ve made lots of mistakes (incorrect calculation, reagents etc) but not sure whether I would class any of them as big. Making mistakes is part of the learning process and one of the most important things is to learn from mistakes

    • Photo: Pam Harrison

      Pam Harrison answered on 24 Jan 2024:

      I can’t think of anything really big, that caused a problem for anyone for too long as we double check most work we do. But making mistakes is something we do all the time, it’s how we learn and when working in an area where the answer isn’t known – we make a lot of mistakes finding the correct way to do something.

    • Photo: Jayne Roberts

      Jayne Roberts answered on 24 Jan 2024:

      Nothing very bad but yes I have got things wrong sometimes. I remember once throwing away a whole set of solutions by accident in an experiment which had been running for 21 days. Not sure my boss was very happy but we managed to get round it in the end! I did a lot more double checking after that!

    • Photo: David Bremner

      David Bremner answered on 25 Jan 2024:

      I once worked for a boss who told me that i didn’t make many mistakes but when i did they tended to be big ones! I learned early on that if you make a mistake then it is better to admit it and you can work to correct it, if you try to hide it then it leads to more trouble for everyone.

    • Photo: Erin Pallott

      Erin Pallott answered on 25 Jan 2024:

      Absolutely! Mistakes are a normal part of the job. I once made a mistake in my calculations and used 10 times more of a reagent than I should have… costing £2,500.

      Mistakes happen, it’s very normal. It felt like a big mistake at the time, but now I can laugh about it!

    • Photo: Adam Washington

      Adam Washington answered on 25 Jan 2024:

      My advisor used to say that your experiment will never work until you’ve fixed all your mistakes. Therefore, a good scientist is able to fix their mistakes quickly, but a great scientist is able to MAKE their mistakes quickly. After all, you can’t fix the mistakes until you make them.

      Among the biggest mistakes I’ve made

      – I accidentally had a robot arm crash into its own encoder box, leaving the arm unable to determine its own position for months.
      – I accidentlly put the wrong degree on my PhD thesis. Neither my thesis reviewers nor the university proofreading office caught the mistake.
      – On a different experiment, I used another robot to bash a $50,000 neutron polariser into a concrete wall.
      – I took a superconducting magnet experiment that had to be kept at close to absolute zero and opened a release valve so that room temperature air could get inside. The screw for the release valve was 15cm long, under the assumption that no one would be such an idiot as to turn the valve a hundred times without realising it was the wrong valve.

    • Photo: Rachel Edwards

      Rachel Edwards answered on 26 Jan 2024:

      Sometimes mistakes are important (if they’re not accidents). A couple of years ago we were trying to work out why an experiment was behaving as it was. We’d done some calculations and predicted what the result should be, and it was wrong. Well, the result was right – our understanding was wrong. We spent a while trying to figure out why, and ended up using some knowledge from how lenses work to figure out what our sound waves were doing. It was a really lovely challenge, if slightly frustrating!

    • Photo: Lisa Humphreys

      Lisa Humphreys answered on 27 Jan 2024:

      Like the others have said we all make mistakes. It’s human. The main thing is that we learn from them.

      Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed is a great book. It really changed my thinking on my perception of failure.

      My mistake, I mistakenly threw a small mix of energetic into a diesel bin when it should have been returned to the operators to put into other things. They had to make the whole thing again. Safe to say I never made that mistake again. I was so upset by it and was constantly apologising. The operators were great and really forgiving.

    • Photo: Tom Kitching

      Tom Kitching answered on 28 Jan 2024:

      Of course! Anybody who claims they haven’t made mistakes is not telling the truth. The most important thing is to make sure you learn from your mistakes, as well as others mistakes. It’s also important to be honest and own these mistakes, rather than attempting to cover these up – people appreciate honesty and can help you correct these mistakes.

      I made the mistake of once asking somebody to do some work on a construction site that they weren’t meant to do – this was an expensive mistake, but I owned up to this and it was corrected and it meant that more money was not wasted.

    • Photo: Paula Proszek

      Paula Proszek answered on 29 Jan 2024:

      We all make mistakes, this is how we get feedback and improve. As long as you learn from it, and ideally others too, then it was a valuable experience.
      PS. Science requires a level of dexterity and ability to focus for long times – not all people are naturals at it, but can learn.

    • Photo: Kirsty Ross

      Kirsty Ross answered on 31 Jan 2024:

      Yes, but the key to mistakes is to own up the minute they happen. If you try and hide, or ignore it, then it becomes soooo much worse!

    • Photo: Margaret Laurie

      Margaret Laurie answered on 9 Feb 2024:

      Yes, I’ve made lots of mistakes! Little ones to mispelling things, and big ones like forgetting to do something in an experiment and nullifying that particular trial! Mistakes are a big part of science and we can learn a lot from them. Sometimes mistakes lead to new questions and opportunities.

    • Photo: Clara Ferreira

      Clara Ferreira answered on 15 Feb 2024:

      Of course – all of us already made a big mistake!
      There is always a way to not make mistakes – do nothing! But all of us do something, so we do make mistakes.
      There is a quote from a poet called Charles Bukowski that says “What matters the most is how well you walk through the fire” – obviously, poetry has different meanings for different people – about mistakes, I would say that it is not about the mistakes that you do, but how you act when you do them. The fact that someone can admit that they are wrong, they get someone else’s opinion and make sure that you sort in the better way says a lot about people as scientist and as people.