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Failure is Important.

It is well established that social media is not an accurate reflection of the ‘real world’. Photos are retouched, successes broadcast loud and proud whilst failures are kept quiet.

However, with the recent pandemic, online platforms have become an increasingly significant way to connect with others and escape the drudgery of lockdown; it has become harder to separate online life and offline life.

Since failure is rarely posted online (or talked about in general), when you experience it, it can feel like you are alone. It can feel embarrassing and alienating. But I am here to tell you that failure is an option, sometimes even the best possible outcome!

Let me tell you about the world’s most famous ‘failed’ experiment.

For millennia, humans have been asking the question ‘What is light?’. Some supposed that light was made up of tiny particles. Others believed that light was a wave. If it were a wave, it would make sense that it would be a wave travelling through something: a medium. Sound waves need a medium to travel through. That is why in the vacuum of space, no one can hear you scream! So light waves would too, right?

In 1678, Christiaan Huygens called this hypothetical medium ‘luminiferous aether’. Almost 200 years later, two physicists designed an experiment to prove once and for all that light is a wave. They were Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, and their experiment is known (imaginatively) as the Michelson-Morley experiment.

The idea was, if the aether existed, it would flow in a continuous wind through space. As the Earth rotates on its axis and orbits the sun, the direction of the aether wind would change concerning an experiment on the Earth’s surface. Therefore, you would expect the speed of light measured on Earth to be different in different directions. Like a fish would appear to swim slower upstream than downstream to a fisher on the riverbank.

So what changes did they see when they ran their experiment? Nothing. No change when they rotated the apparatus, no change throughout the day as the Earth rotated. The investigation to prove the existence of the aether was an embarrassing failure.

It appeared that light travelled at the same speed in every direction. Whilst this may at first seem like a non-result, it actually had significant implications. Disproving the existence of aether was a greater success than proving it. It led to a complete rethink of what light is and how it behaves, eventually leading to Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

What if Michelson and Morley had been too embarrassed to publish their result? Too embarrassed to admit they had proved themselves wrong? The theory of relativity may have taken longer to gain acceptance and acclaim. Without an understanding of relativity, we would have no functioning GPS satellites. In short, we would not be as technologically advanced as we are today.

The lesson of this story is that failure is not always a bad thing. Sometimes we learn more from things ‘going wrong’ than if we succeed the first time at everything we try. Failure has value; failure is essential; failure is an option. So next time something doesn’t turn out as you had hoped, remember that there may be unforeseen positive consequences yet to come.

And if you feel like a failure, remember: you’re in good company.

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