In Science, And In Life, ‘Once A Failure’ Does Not Mean ‘Always A Failure’
“Adams initial failure to calculate and find Neptune did not prevent him from having later success with the Moon’s orbital motion. It in no way inhibited him in his greatest achievement: identifying the source of meteor showers, and confirming that Comet Tempel-Tuttle causes the Leonids. Similarly, Le Verrier’s immediate success in predicting the existence of Neptune didn’t lead to future success; his prediction of the existence of Vulcan, a proposed planet interior to Mercury to explain its orbit, failed to materialize.
In science, making a successful advance not only requires skill, talent, and persistence, but also a fair bit of luck. You can make mistakes along the way, in theory, in practice, and in judgment, but every new problem you tackle is a new chance to get it right. Treat your failures for what they are: momentary setbacks. In no way do they define your destiny.”
We all have our heroes, whether in sports, politics, war, art, music, or science. We like our heroes flawless: always right and victorious, never mistaken or beset by failure. But real life isn’t usually so clean. In fact, some of science’s greatest achievements were made by people who had colossal failures early in their careers. Perhaps no one exemplifies this more than John Couch Adams, who spectacularly failed to discover the planet Neptune in the mid-1840s, getting scooped by Urbain Le Verrier and his correspondents, led by the observers Galle and d’Arrest. Adams never blamed his corresponding observers, Airy and Challis, for their errors in judgment, and went on to solve one of astronomy’s greatest open problems: the origin of meteor showers.