Fail, then Question Everything (Research Notebook)

In my current job, I don’t do research, and I miss it.  This is partially why I started the chemhacker project – it’s a way for me to take some fun chemical projects, research them, develop my own processes for making a few things, and maybe even make some new things.

Over the past few months, I have been slowly working on a process for making ferrofluids by making magnetite nanoparticles, then adding surfactants, and suspending them in a liquid.  Starting only from (mostly) readily available household chemicals.

I started with a process that I know works, but has a lot of problems  – the end product isn’t very good, and there are unnecessarily dangerous intermediate steps, but it works.  I successfully ran through the bad process, listed all the problems I found, and prepared to move onto my new, safer, more efficient, better process.

And then it happened.

Or rather, it didn’t happen.  It didn’t work.  I ran into a problem in the early, simple stage of the reaction – it just didn’t work.  I had done a lot of preparation, reading, research, and purchasing of chemicals – and it just didn’t work.

This is the life of a researcher – spend huge amounts of time, money, and resources on a problem, only to see it fail, over, and over, and over, and over.

I had completely forgotten how painful, frustrating, and infuriating research can be.  Research is so frustrating, so daunting, that when I realized, after 9 months of hard work, that I had proved that my MS thesis had the possibility of working (I hadn’t proved that it worked, but I had proved that it might work), I took the rest of the week off and went skiing to celebrate the fact that I had proven that I had the possibility of graduating.  Proving conclusively that my project worked would take another 12 months or so, but that first terrifying 9 months of failure still haunts me.

Which brings me back to my weekend project.

After the ghosts of failures past rose up to remind me what research really feels like, I took a break and did the next most important thing a scientist does: question everything.

Go back to basic assumptions: does the reaction actually do what I think it’s doing?

Are my chemicals actually what I think they are?

Are my measurements correct?

Are my calculations correct?

After two days of this, I returned to my lab to find that the reaction completed sometime while I was gone asking questions.  My assumption that the reaction would happen quickly was wrong – everything is ok, the reaction just took longer than I thought it should.

The thrill of a recent success always tastes sweeter than the bitterness of failures past.  This is what keeps me in the lab – working through the problems and solving them (or letting them solve themselves).

Get back to the lab, lab rats!

(Creative commons image from Flickr user flireflythegreat – click image for more information)

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