Preface: The last magazine of each calendar year is, as per Yale Scientific Magazine tradition, a themed special issue. This letter, co-written by your outgoing 2023 managing team—Alex Dong, Madison Houck, and Sophia Li—examines why we have chosen to focus on failure as our central theme. We will also explain how each section of this special issue has been modified to cover a different aspect of our theme, while highlighting several notable articles exclusive to this magazine. We hope you enjoy reading Vol. 96 No. 4: The Failure Issue!
As anyone from an undergraduate student to a tenured professor could tell you, failure is a natural, necessary part of science. The scientific method is predicated on a constant cycle of failures and successes that drive experimental work forward. Arguably, a failed experiment can be more generative than a successful one, yielding new questions and research directions. And yet, most major scientific journals exclusively publish success stories. These stories are then picked up by journalists and communicated to the public, while a long history of failed experiments remains obscured from view. It’s an open secret—we all know success doesn’t come easy, but we don’t seem to want to hear about a series of mistakes without groundbreaking innovation to show for it.
When the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced in October, science journalists began reporting on the incredible stories of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. Although their contributions to the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine have undoubtedly shaped our world today, their work was consistently underestimated and disregarded for years until the right set of circumstances recently led to a breakthrough (pg. 30). Inspired by their story and its subsequent public reception, our final issue of the year seeks to examine the theme of failure broadly across science and science journalism. How do scientists regard failure? How have initial failures led to great progress? And how have overhyped innovations fallen by the wayside?
In this spirit, we also asked: How has our own magazine failed in the past? The Yale Scientific Magazine (YSM), the nation’s oldest collegiate science publication, has existed in some form or another for 130 years. It’s easy to evaluate the failures of others critically and even to perceive them as avenues for growth, but it’s much more difficult to examine oneself. This year, as we moved our historical archives from our old offices in Welch Hall and 305 Crown Street to the Benjamin Franklin College Library, we had the opportunity to delve into the evolution of YSM over time.
Our magazine’s past has included missteps ranging from the comical—like the “Troubled Years” where YSM rebranded to focus on student affairs rather than science from 1918 to 1926—to the incredibly serious, like the magazine’s promotion of eugenics and other pseudoscientific ideas in the 1900s. Ultimately, this is another reason why our managing team felt that “The Failure Issue” was so important to create. As our magazine continues to grow and change, it is our responsibility as young journalists to understand our organization’s past and to learn from it.
In this special issue, we have modified our usual sections to reflect this endeavor of examining and reflecting upon failure.
Our “Shorts” section, which has replaced “News,” begins with a timeline of notable scientific failures throughout the ages—whether that be Aristotle’s disproven theory of spontaneous generation in the 4th century BC or the fall of the now-infamous biotech company Theranos (pg. 6). This section then presents short profiles of three unconventional scientists: Brian Nosek, who studies the reproducibility of new discoveries and how to make the research process more transparent (pg. 9); Marc Abrahams, who founded a magazine and prize ceremony to honor unusual, imaginative, and humorous science (pg. 10); and Stuart Firestein, who investigates why failure is the driving factor behind scientific success (pg. 11).
For our Full-Lengths section, we went back to YSM’s archives and selected decades-old articles to examine how our scientific understanding of various subjects has evolved—or been subverted—over time. For instance, a YSM article written in 1941 discredited one hypothesis about the origins of the solar system that has, in fact, developed into the theory widely accepted by physicists today (pg. 12). In another article, we reflected on a Lyme disease vaccine covered by YSM in 1993 with a seemingly promising future that was never actualized (pg. 16).
Our Features section focuses on more contemporary scientific discourse and the trial-and-error nature of experimentation. For example, a 130-year-old assumption about seawater ion distribution was recently debunked (pg. 26), bringing forth a need to reevaluate past research that relied on it. Over the past three years, there have also been intense back-and-forths in science, such as an ongoing debate about life on Venus (pg. 30) and the multiple attempts—and failures—to create room-temperature superconductors (pg. 32).
These ideas, decades ago, might have sounded like the stuff of science fiction. In our Special Sections, we have included a reprint of a 1951 YSM article interrogating the impact that intelligent robots may have on society through this lens of science fiction (pg. 34). We then wrote a side-by-side comparison of those ideas with the very real developments of artificial intelligence and machine learning today (pg. 35).
So, what have we learned? Some inventions and innovations were hailed as the next big breakthrough, only to fall short of expectations. Other discoveries were not given a second glance but turned out to have world-changing impacts. Either way, failure in science is ubiquitous. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be easy to discount the striving and the seemingly innumerous number of times we’ve barked up the wrong tree. Yet we must keep in mind that no experiment will be the “final one” or the “capstone” of a field—the work will never be finished. There will always be something more to question or explore.
With that, it is now time for us to pass over the reins to the next masthead. It has truly been an honor to serve you all as your 2023 YSM Managing Team this year. We would like to thank our incredible contributors across all five branches—Editorial, Production, Business, Web, and Synapse—without whom none of this would have been possible, as well as our 35 masthead members for their leadership, initiative, and tenacity.
We would also like to express our deepest gratitude to the Yale Science and Engineering Association and its president, Milton Young, for their instrumental guidance and support this year. Finally, thank you, our readers, for your continued engagement with YSM—you are the reason we do what we do. Here’s to science, to striving, and to failure.
Alex Dong, Editor-in-Chief
Madison Houck, Managing Editor
Sophia Li, Managing Editor
Vol. 96 No. 4