Embarrassing Moments in Science


Regular readers will know that the Realm of the Lone Grey Squirrel loves to celebrate excellence……….excellence in failure, that is!  Yes, there is something about epic fails that fills the heart with soul healing mirth and with admiration for the gumption of those who dared to try and fall flat on their faces.  That is why, the IgNobel Awards are frequently feted here.

But recently, the Squirrel had been alerted to a new source of inspiration.  Fieldwork Fails is a book that has a collection of stories of scientists hard at work in the field collecting data and making a fool of themselves in the process.  Kind of a tribute to those who push the boundaries of science and find that the sometimes the boundaries push back.

Here is a couple of examples from Fieldwork Fails which is compiled and illustrated by Jim Jourdane.

science fails 1

science fail 2.jpg

Now I have a few personal examples that I could add to the compilation on account that I am a scientist, have done fieldwork and have experienced epic fails.  But the following is one of my favorite, true, “cross my heart and hope to die” yarns.

This was early in my career as a conservationist and I joined a scientific expedition to a part of the Malaysian jungle that had been relatively poorly investigated by science.  I was really inexperienced at that time but had the wonderful privilege of being in the company of some very respected biologists and botanists and learning from them.  In return, all these eminent scientists asked of me was to carry all their heavy gear through the hot, steamy jungle.

We operated out of a base camp that was almost totally constructed of jungle material.  We slept on stretcher like cots made out of wooden poles and canvas under a shelter that was constructed from various palm leaves laid over a wooden frame.

On one occasion, I had a chance to follow a group of three entomologists who were leaders in their field.  (Entomologist = someone crazy about insects).  After a long day out in the field collecting insect specimens from various traps, we returned to camp and plopped our tired bodies down on to adjacent cots.

It was there, while we lay in the fading light, nursing our sore muscles, that one of the guys spotted an extremely large stick insect up in the rafters of our crude shelter. Now, Malaysia is famous for its many species of stick insects – some of which are very large.

Cameron Highlands - Stick Insect

Anyway, all four of us continued to lie on our cots exhausted, observing the creature from afar and there then ensured an academic debate as to the identity of the curious visitor in our rafters.  One was sure that it was a rare species.  Another disagreed, citing the proportion of the body to the head did not fit the species characteristics.  The third insisted it was yet another species based on the structure and positioning of the legs.  For once, I was wise enough to keep silent and let the experts argue it out.

After, about 15 minutes of heated discussion, one of the experts declared, “There’s only one way to settle this!”.  With that, he got up, reached for his butterfly net and scooped the insect from the rafters for closer examination.  With the prize in hand, all three gathered round to make the final identification.

That’s when they realised that it wasn’t a stick insect at all, it was a …..stick.

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14 thoughts on “Embarrassing Moments in Science”

  1. Better to argue and find a stick is just a stick than to glue your hand to a gator. My father was fairly well known scientist in his field, fortunately i did not inherit that particular gene.

  2. So much for the old phrase “a stick in the mud”…. if sticks are smart enough to camouflage themselves as an insect good enough to fool even a trained entomologist, then we’ve underestimated sticks all these years…

  3. My father was discharged in 1945 after 9 years as a sailor in both the Atlantic and Pacific. He enlisted in ’36 to earn money for college. Once he started college he had his BS in chemistry in 2 years, a master’s in Pharmacy a year later and 1+ year after that he matriculated his PhD. in chemical engineering. He specialized in linked chain polymers. He worked for Chrysler and developed the polymer that could be molded and shaped to a variety of extruded forms to pad metal dashboards for the first time, that and he had a hand in what we call refrigerator magnets today, adding the ferrous quality to the plastic to enable magnetization.

    Chrysler paid him to teach the summer semester in chemical induced polymers at Purdue so they could have him scout out the crop. The man knew what he was doing when it came to that mess–he was an artist of another color I suppose. He felt about poetry and writing the same way I felt about science and math. “What, pray tell, is it good for?”

  4. Mark,
    We, biochemists, like to talk trash about organic chemists such as your dad. We like to blame them for all our landfill problems. But that’s really because we are envious and it makes us feel better about ourselves. Your dad had a hand in a number of things that have become household items. I, too, have a ridiculous amount of fridge magnets!

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