I started writing a long story about the importance of Doctor Who to my story of the past nine months, but it started making me too upset and a bit uncomfortable, so I stopped. Since it’s late and I have homework and a Quantum exam to study for, I’ll settle for saying something about my day today.
My lab partner and I were supposed to calculate the speed of light. Instead of choosing the method already laid out for us, we decided to do a cavity resonance experiment. Since this wasn’t a method for which we had a setup, we found a paper and tried to replicate their setup.
It was difficult, to say the least. There were some things we couldn’t replicate because we just didn’t have the same kind of equipment. This meant that we couldn’t take the same kind of data or perform the same kind of analysis. We managed to salvage a calculation using a theoretical model and my analysis, but half of the experiment just sort of collapsed.
My lab partner was hit pretty hard by the fact that his half of the experiment hadn’t panned out. I knew how he felt–something similar had happened during my research assistantship the summer before last. It’s depressing, thinking that you spent all that time and energy getting absolutely nowhere.
Our professor wanted to see our results and analysis today. So we showed him–how we had managed to get something based on a model, how half of the experiment just hadn’t worked. He wasn’t surprised or angry. Rather, he told us how he wanted us to structure our report. He wanted all of our documentation, all the papers and other publications we used as reference. He said that while there was still some work to do before it could ever be on the list of possible labs, we had nailed down half of it, and that was a good start. In the future, maybe another pair of students would pick up our work and figure out a way to finish what we started.
Even null results are important. An experiment that didn’t pan out can be used to improve upon future experiments. Reporting a null result, especially one like this, can help people in their work just as much as reporting an actual result.
Science is about moving forward. We wander around blindly, guided by the past. Sometimes that means hitting dead ends. It can be devastating at the time. But not all doors are easy to find. A dead end can open the door to other questions, other answers. Sometimes what seems like a wall is actually a door for which we haven’t found the key, and sometimes we build doors out of walls.
I think that’s beautiful.