Sometimes failure is the springboard to success

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Sandy Schaffer
Some discoveries originate in failures. Lab failures, of course, can lead to serendipitous findings. Observations that fail to meet your expectations create space for a new idea to take hold. Imperfections — small failures — may tell volumes about how something was made or what it is made of. Exposing flaws in a theory inches scientists closer to a better one. Failure forces us to ask hard questions and look for new answers.

Our cover story follows the aftermath of a recent acknowledgment of a major fail: We haven’t yet taken a complete census of all minerals on Earth. Akin to the search to name all living species on the planet (but less of a moving target), a campaign is under way to add to the more than 5,000 known minerals, freelancer Sid Perkins writes in “Digging Carbon” (SN: 10/15/16, p. 18). It’s a kind of treasure hunt, as these minerals presumably have not yet been found because they are incredibly rare, perhaps existing at only a single location. Especially interesting to rock hounds are the scores of as yet unseen carbon-based minerals predicted to exist by a recent statistical analysis. Hidden in these unexplored gems might lie untold stories about how Earth’s carbon and water cycles have changed over the eons. Just as adding a new bird species to a life list is exciting for bird watchers, finding a new kind of mineral is what many rock hounds aspire to.

Another kind of failure may explain a mysterious missing star, Christopher Crockett reports in “Lost star may be failed supernova” (SN: 10/15/16, p. 8). A giant star, 25 to 30 times as massive as the sun, flared and then fizzled in 2009. Scientists now say it might be a failed supernova, a dying star that didn’t have quite the right stuff to explode and instead went from star straight to black hole. If the star is not just hiding somewhere in the dust, it’s a new cosmic character, a new type of behavior to watch for.

Imperfections in humans’ DNA help make each of us unique. These imperfections, viewed at a population scale, also offer a way (still imperfect in itself) to track ancestry, to get some idea of how human populations moved, mingled and changed in the deep past. In “The Hybrid Factor” (SN: 10/15/16, p. 22), Bruce Bower describes how recent DNA studies of ancient hominids are changing views of human evolutionary history. Early humans, the data show, mated with Neandertals and possibly other hominids, producing viable hybrid offspring. The research gives support to a longtime contention by some paleoanthropologists that certain ancient skeletons might represent human-Neandertal mixes. Further evidence for this point of view is now coming from studies of hybrid baboons and other modern species. Mixing species, it seems, was sometimes a success.

Examining the DNA of wide swaths of living people is also revising ideas about when early humans migrated out of Africa to settle the rest of the globe. Three new studies, described by Tina Hesman Saey in “One Africa exodus populated globe” (SN: 10/15/16, p. 6), suggest that the major ancestral mass migration from Africa occurred between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago. Those migrants succeeded in leaving their genetic mark on all of today’s non-Africans. Other evidence points to earlier, smaller migrations from Africa. Perhaps those were failures in a sense, failing to seed lasting populations in far-off outposts. But, perhaps those earlier, smaller scale treks were just the first steps toward success.

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