“Couldn’t you notice?” my friend’s mother innocently asked me after she sympathetically listened to my self-pitying tale of my failed experiments.
“No, not at all,” was my honest reply.
If someone never needed to do anything, she would live a carefree life. An existence reflecting the natural inner balance given at birth and then nurtured through a harmonious, meaningful upbringing. Like a vintage car without scratches.
Most people need to work for a living. I am a well-seasoned scientist with more than 30 years of research work behind me. I have been feeling safe and sound, wrapped in a suitable layer of experience-driven confidence. But I was still shell shocked when I discovered a few months ago that my experiments were all messed up. The reason: my technician made a tiny error in his programming of my experimental protocols.
When someone is caught off-guard, her mind starts spinning in an attempt to make sense out the situation. It tries to draw a new map, a route for restoration of balance. Unfortunately, I had never noticed that error until one afternoon late last autumn. Since I am the director of my research projects, any errors made by my research team are ultimately my fault. Instead of seeing the problem, I was rather fascinated by a strange feature of my experimental results throughout last summer; this could be a new discovery that no one had noticed before!
Someone has claimed that perfectionism begins before birth, the quest to do right lies within our DNA. I do not necessarily subscribe to this theory. However, I was eager to check the characteristics of my results, including that strange feature, from numerous different angles to come up to a logical brain mechanism that explains my discovery. The painstaking effort eventually led to a finding of a skewness in directions of arm movements that participants made in my experiments. Umm, that’s strange: those directions are supposed to be evenly distributed. Then realization hit me. Oh, no! These skewed movement directions led to the strange feature of my results! No, no! But it was now all clear as black and white – these data were completely useless.
Philosophers – or was it songwriters? – have correctly pointed out that everything has its time and place, and that nothing ever goes to waste in the greater scheme of things. I rather like that thought, but must wonder how my data could ever fit into any food chain. Over three experiments, I tested more than one hundred fifty people. Each participant spent two to three hours for an experiment. It took more than a year to collect all data. I even paid an hourly fee for every participant. On top of that, a year’s worth of my salary and research assistants’ as well. Thinking of the manpower and resources poured into these experiments made me feel sick. What could I do? Nothing. Nothing at all.
“Do not collect garbage!” my supervisor in my master course told me again and again 30 years ago. As I started walking into a science field with my baby steps, he was stressing the importance of collecting good, clean, useable data from every experiment.
“Garbage is garbage no matter how much you collect it,” he continued.
That was so true… I was shaking my head as I threw away all my experimental data.
I wondered what was best: nothing or garbage. I had been puzzled by these data since I first saw them, but nonetheless excited to have them around. Until I realized they were garbage, that was. Letting them go sure wasn’t easy, but after initial feelings of emptiness and regret came a sense of relief. Supposedly, the data are still shaking their heads up there in the sky somewhere; I sure haven't forgotten about them.
A fortnight ago when I visited my old friend in my hometown, I explained the failure of my experiments to her and her parents. I have known them well since my high school. Her parents used to run a ceramic shop, I recall. My friend and I often went upstairs at their home where her room was situated above the shop, and we talked for hours. Now my friend is running the shop, while her parents have retired. All three have been always supportive and curious to hear about my experiences as a scientist.
“So, what is new?” is their usual opening question. They seem to find my scientific work exciting to follow. While drinking a cup of coffee after a hearty fish dinner with good wine, I explained to them about my recent setback in my work. After swallowing the bitterness of my messed-up experiments and slowly crawling back from the setback, I was now composed enough to candidly talk about my failed experiments. Although they had no scientific background, they easily understood the gravity of my failure. After keenly listening to my story, her practically minded mother asked me matter-of-factly, “Couldn’t you notice the error much earlier?”
As a ceramic shop keeper, she had keen eyes for imperfection in ceramics. She could, in a matter of seconds, detect even a slightest error in color or shape on coffee cups or dinner plates. It was unthinkable for her that I didn’t notice the error for such a long time.
“No, not at all.” I bit my lip and looked away.
Indeed. Why couldn’t I? Her question lingered in my mind for some time.
If someone never needed to account for her prior actions, she could wake up with a smile on her face every morning, greeting the new day with unblemished optimism. She could stretch out her arms, sigh with contentment, and start singing a little in anticipation of breakfast. No matter what errors she might make that day, she could repeat the exact same thing the following morning. Like: “Hey, life, here I am!”
The participants of my failed experiment were clueless about my woes. They could sleep peacefully every night, assuming their strenuous effort had benefited mankind in one shape or form. The technicians had bigger fish to fry than worry about some project from the past, and the financiers of my research had pockets deep enough to take a hit. Everyone seemed at ease with one notable exception: me.
Fortunately, the answer to the lingering question came one evening last week as I went out for jogging after work. Jogging is my magic wand, a secret weapon for my survival in the science world. Answers to many of my scientific questions usually pop up while I am doing this. The steady locomotive movements seem to shake off the clutters in my head from a day’s work, gathering fragments of subconscious thoughts and connecting them together, then bringing answers up to the surface.
No, I couldn’t notice the error earlier. No way. This is because I am a scientist. Scientific work is always pioneering work. If we already knew a result, no one would need to do an experiment in the first place. We explore unknowns and discover things. That is the nature of our work. So, as long as an experiment is carried out correctly, its results are supposed to represent the truth of the matter. That is, in my field, the nature of how the brain works. Even when I started noticing a strange phenomenon in my experimental results, I still believed that it represented the true nature of brain function. That was why I kept looking for a logical mechanism that would explain the strange result. With such a mindset, there was no chance for me to have noticed the experimental error much earlier. I must say that I was even lucky to find it before it was too late. Otherwise, I would have messed up the history of science with my error finding its way into publications. I compare my experience to a boxer who is saved by the bell.
Setbacks may restore one's sense of proportions. As I think back on my career as a scientist, I have been always very lucky about my collaborators. Many of them had a wealth of experiences in their own scientific territories. They knew many pit holes of designing experiments. They generously gave me numerous pieces of advice. Now I am certain that their casual, innocent-sounding advice here and there was worth its weight in gold. Otherwise, imagine how much garbage I would have collected in vain over the last 30 years.
* * *
“What is the benefit of your work to society?” my colleague’s father asked us challengingly when he visited his daughter in our laboratory one sunny afternoon.
It was the early 2000’s. I was working as a post-doctoral researcher at a US university. My colleague’s father was a plump retired medical doctor, full of vigor.
“Have some chocolate. It’s very good.”
He thrusted a box of chocolate in front of my eyes. I was sharing an office with his daughter, also a post-doctoral fellow, and a male PhD student. We all enjoyed the sweet taste of delicate Belgian milk chocolate. Cheerful words were exchanged.
But the old man wasted no time before interrogating us about our work. “What is the purpose of your experiment?... Who did you test?... How many people?... What were your key findings?”
I started feeling like someone attending a job interview, but I earnestly answered his questions one by one. Then came a bombshell.
“You just measure people’s movements and write papers. What does that do to help society?”
What a question! I gasped. My peaceful afternoon doing data analysis came to an abrupt end by this uninvited interrogator. With his shining eyes, I could see that his mood was in full swing upwards. He was obviously enjoying himself.
I then remembered what my colleague once told me. “Papa likes to provoke others in his conversation, but my brothers and I are so used to it.”
I could easily imagine his sense of superiority in this particular debate, because he had helped numerous people throughout his long career as a physician. On the contrary, what do we do? We measure people’s movements by doing experiments, analyze them, and write scientific papers. Based upon our findings, we discuss the underlying brain functions. That’s all. We proudly report, say, 200 milliseconds of difference between the duration of movements of young adults and that of older adults. The difference is just one fifth of a second.
I almost became apologetic as I explained the small differences that we were dealing with in our work. But I explained our scientific contributions as the best as I could.
“I know the difference is tiny, but it is a big deal for us. Our movements are controlled by the brain, which calculates and decides the best strategy of movements to perform everyday activities. Unless you carefully study someone’s movements, you don’t know how these movements are controlled. And if movements become suboptimal due to aging or disease, it is important of identify which part is being affected.”
“But what’s the problem in being slow? It is natural for older people like me. I have the whole day. I may be a little bit slow, but I can easily make all my movements every day. No problem at all!”
His tone of voice told me that I was in trouble. He was clearly expressing his skepticism about the value of our work in basic science. I had to do something to defend our territory… OK, he was a physician. So I decided to try another line of my work related to neurological patients. This must penetrate through his stone head.
“We also examine grasping movements of patients with a certain neurological disorder. Grasping is very important because we do it many, many times every day. For example, like picking up this piece of chocolate. The brain calculates the size of a piece of chocolate; and as we move our hand toward it, we open our fingers slightly wider than the chunk of chocolate. Then we grasp it as our hand reaches the chocolate. Such finger movements before grasping is called preshaping, which is controlled subconsciously. So, we don’t notice. But our brain is working hard to make precise finger movements, so that we don’t drop the chocolate.”
I demonstrated the preshaping and grasping movement, and explained the smooth coordination among the arm, hand, and fingers. Then I continued, “So, we measure how far these fingers are separated during preshaping. We can clearly see the size difference between healthy people and these patients.”
My speech and demonstration didn’t impress him at all, except giving him another ammunition to fire. “How much is the difference, say, for Parkinson’s disease patients?”
He asked drily. He was a retired physician after all. So, he knew that Parkinson’s disease is caused by a malfunction of the basal ganglia in the brain.
“It is about one centimeter smaller for these patients than healthy people.”
“Ha, one centimeter! So what? It is just less than an inch!” he said triumphantly, waving his hand in front of my eyes to show me a tiny gap that he made with his thumb and index finger.
“Yes, it does matter,” I heard myself saying with a slightly high tone in my nervous voice, but I continued. “Our analysis identifies the features of how their movements are impaired. Such an identification would eventually help developing therapeutic intervention techniques. So, these patients can improve their movement capabilities in the future.”
Then he simply said, “When does that happen?”
“Well, I don’t know…” I was checkmated.
Soon afterwards, he left our office. As he was leaving, his face revealed the full satisfaction of having had a fun afternoon at my expense.
His chocolate was sweet enough, but his questions were way too bitter for my peaceful afternoon. After his departure, I just wanted to put a notice on our office door: “Chocolate only, please. Unsolicited questions are unwelcome.” But the afternoon incident lingered in my mind until that evening. Why did I have to feel foolish and uncomfortable with such discussions? After all, everything I said was true. So, what’s the problem?
Evening jogging brought me an answer to the source of my discomfort. All I said was true, but it was not the whole truth. The truth was that I really like my research. As simple as that. I have never tired of thinking about movements. Even as I was explaining things to him, I knew deep in my mind that it didn’t matter whether my research benefits society or not. I'd be happier if it does, but that is secondary for me. I will do my science as much as I can and for as long as I can. That was the only certainty I had at that point of my life as a scientist.
Basic science is a precarious thing. How our work benefits society, if at all, depends on how society will develop in the future. Indeed, good news landed on me a couple of years ago. A physiotherapist whom I met at a conference told me that physiotherapists nowadays teach stroke patients to make a preshaping of fingers to grasp an object. I knew that preshaping was first reported in late 1970’s, and frantic research activities of preshaping ensued in our field. It is still a popular topic even today. In recent years, the field of robotics is reaping the fruits of our hard-earned knowledge to develop the control system of robotic hands and arms. But it seems it took more than 40 years before preshaping became a part of an intervention technique. It finally and actually happened. That is simply great!
About the author
Maple Klockgether is a well-published neuroscientist and occasional essayist. Her essay “Science and Music” was published in Novelty Fiction’s second anthology and subsequently as a Kindle e-book. Her essay “Scientifically Imperfect,” first published here at Novelty Fiction Gazette, was subsequently published in Kindle e-book format. Both titles are also available in PDF format via Novelty Fiction Book Club.