Life Lesson #3 – Don’t Be Afraid of Making Mistakes

Science history is full of mistakes. You will seldom meet a scientist who hasn’t stumbled onto something by accident, had an experiment go awry, or just plain messed s%$t up.

Sometimes scientists didn’t so much make mistakes as just getting it plain wrong. Lots of really smart people were into alchemy, which is the idea that you can change one element to another, like lead into gold. Others believed for centuries that the Earth was the center of the universe, and some even believed that the Earth was only 6,000 years old (Some people actually still believe this. If you believe this, you should probably read this blog with an open mind and learn some science.). Of course, we know now that each of these things are wrong. As our collective scientific hiveminds grew, we all moved forward as a society.

Beautiful Mistakes

Sometimes mistakes benefit society in ways that no one could have predicted. You know plastic, right? It’s pretty much everywhere and we wouldn’t know what to do without it. Well, it turns out that the man who invented it was just looking to make a shellac alternative.  In the mid-1960s, two Americans that worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation that had been predicted decades earlier.

The best example of a beautiful mistake is probably penicillin. Before penicillin was around, many people died from bacterial infections that we don’t think twice about today. such as strep throat, gonorrhea, and pneumonia. According to the American Chemical Society, in 1928, Alexander Fleming was a Professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. As he returned from a holiday to his lab, Fleming began sorting through petri dishes filled with Staphylococcus bacterium. He noticed that one dish was a little peculiar – the bacterium weren’t growing around some  mold that had found its way onto the petri dish. Fleming found that his “mold juice” could kill many harmful bacteria.

If at First You Don’t Succeed. . .

Of course, not every great invention was “accidentally” discovered. The vast majority of scientific advancements were made through painstaking, backbreaking work. But every time a scientist conducts an experiment in which nothing “worked”, this still leads to an enhancement of science. Science lets us look at what works and what doesn’t work. Experiments are meant to help us figure this out. How will we move forward and grow without mistakes?

I played basketball in high school. When I was a freshman, instead of playing for fun, I was afraid of making mistakes. Therefore, I didn’t play as well as I could have. I often think back about that time and wish I could tell my younger self to just go out and have fun.

I try to remember this advice every day, both in my professional and home life. Go out. Live. Do. Don’t be afraid.

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Breakin’ the Law! Breakin’ the “Space Law!”

The first tracks made by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover (courtesy of JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/NASA/AP).

Did you know that the United States is part of an international Outer Space Treaty? Formally (and wordily) called “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” the treaty establishes the foundation of Space Law. Basically the idea is that no country can put nuclear weapons into orbit or establish a military base on the moon (Sorry Newt Gingrich!) Also everyone should maintain the integrity and cleanliness of Outer Space, since it is not owned by any one country, and must be preserved for Science.

With that goal in mind, NASA has a Planetary Protection Officer that consults with engineers to ensure that equipment sent from Earth is suitably decontaminated before launch. Capsules that are sent into the void of space have little risk of contaminating another heavenly body, and have more relaxed decon standards. Rovers have much more strict requirements.

Still, each type of machine has a certain allowable amount of organisms that tag along – kind of like the amount of spiders and dog hairs allowed in sausage. Total sterility is impossible, but the engineers try to keep the number of organisms to a minimum. Some parts can be autoclaved – put in a pressure cooker that kill organisms with heat and pressure. More delicate equipment is wiped down with alcohol.

The Mars Curiosity Rover was clean and all set to fly when engineers decided to tweak the packing on the drill bits that the rover will use to drill into the Martian terrain. Concerned that a rocky landing might damage the bit-grabbing mechanism, they pre-loaded one of the bits onto the drill to make sure that it would be ready to go, even if it couldn’t load the bit mechanically. Unfortunately, these engineers failed to tell the Planetary Protection Officer, and the drill was sealed up without being properly cleaned.

Since Curiosity is mainly traveling through dry, rocky areas, there may be little risk of contaminating Mars with our Earth bugs. After analyzing the exposure risk, the Planetary Protection Officer decided that the only real concern would be in Curiosity found water. Since liquid water in required for all Earth life forms, a bacteria that jumped ship in the Martian desert is probably a goner, but one that takes up residence in a pond just might survive.

The odds of Curiosity finding water in the cold, dry Gale Crater where it landed are pretty low. However, can you imagine being the engineer that would have to steer away from the water in the event that you did find it? I don’t know if I would have that kind of self-control.

Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I would be shocked if organisms from the earth survived on the edges of this drill despite the harsh UV light, the dryness of the environment, the freezing temperatures and lack of air pressure. The bacteria that are tagging along are probably from humans – we are walking bacteria bags, after all – and are happier hanging around a warm, moist body than in the harsh rocky environment of Mars. As long as one of the NASA employees didn’t have a nasty case of Deinococcus radiodurans, I can’t imagine that the rover was contaminated with anything that would set up shop on Mars.

In the event that we did collect bacteria from Mars that we had previously planted there, then wouldn’t we be able to figure that out? Yes, it would be devastating to set up cultures from some precious Mars soil and realize that you had grown E. coli or even a common soil microorganism. But with genetic tests you could determine if the organisms are recently from Earth or if there really are similar microbes growing on Mars.

Of course, it’s never wise to bet against the bacteria. So far we’ve found organisms in almost every place we’ve looked, including ice cores in Antarctica and in boiling geysers. We’ve also found them in the

Atacama desert, which is the most Mars-like environment you can find without leaving earth.  So it’s certainly smart to be as clean as possible. You never know what kind of organisms might survive an interplanetary round-trip.