Failure is central to the practice of science. Indeed, as neurobiologist Stuart Firestein argues, the kind of failure proper to science cannot be recuperated by narratives of resiliency or eventual success. Effective scientific practice is "iterative" and inherently incomplete; it is never wholly correct and always invites further inquiry (Firestein 2016). Unfortunately, popular conceptions of scientific labor cannot account for the necessity of failure. All too often, misunderstanding of the scientific process affects the priorities of governmental funding bodies, "drives scientists to embrace a science that must prove its worth and restrict its inquisitiveness by counting its successes" (Barwich 2019), and contributes to widespread anti-science sentiment in the public sphere. The latter is an especially urgent issue during high-profile scientific initiatives that impact public health, such as coronavirus research. Key to closing the gap between scientists and lay people is an acknowledgment of what Ann-Sophie Barwich calls the "value of failures qua being a failure" and what Firestein describes, following writer Gertrude Stein, as failure as "an end in itself" (Barwich 2019; Firestein 2016). It is significant that Firestein's book Failure: Why Science is So Successful (2016) turns to Stein as well as playwright Samuel Beckett to frame his argument regarding scientific practice. The arts, which have alternative reference points for truth and discovery, can intervene in dominant modes of science communication and offer both scientists and nonscientists new perspectives on success. More specifically, the established role of narrative—that is, at its most broad, the choice and arrangement of events—in contributing to the misconstrual of scientific progress provides an opportunity for narrative to do things differently and for different sensory modes of narrative to be mobilized in the telling of unconventional stories. The wide application of the term narrative across the arts permits a flexible approach to the creation and dissemination of stories about science and offers multimodal possibilities for considering the incompleteness and perpetual dynamism of the scientific enterprise.
With this in mind, we propose a science-art (SciArt) collaboration to promote a more enabling conception of failure in science. SciArt is a burgeoning interdisciplinary practice integrating techniques from science and artistic creation. Our SciArt project, titled False Rhyme: The Sound of Scientific Failure, has several steps. First, we will record oral histories of professional failure in the scientific study of genetic molecules, beginning with an interview with our own Sy Redding. Then, we will take musical elements from these recordings of speech (deriving notes and rhythms from the vocal inflections), translate this music into a code of DNA base pairs, and synthesize the DNA. Next, we will propagate this DNA as plasmids in E. coli, extract the DNA, and subject it to improper conditions, causing it to deteriorate. Finally, we will sequence the DNA to decode it back into music (in new, altered form) for a final composition that artistically expresses the ideas around failure from the original speech—simultaneously (and literally) illustrating the failure of our original audio data due to DNA deterioration. What will this sound like? WE DON'T KNOW YET. Can it be done? Yes. The project will finally be exhibited as a sound installation in a gallery or museum and a live performance in a concert hall.
DNA research is the ideal field for an artistic investigation of failure. As philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem notes at the dawn of the age of molecular biology, the discovery of DNA, the introduction of the language of information theory (such as "code" and "translation") into the science of heredity, and the revelation of the genetic basis of some disease worked together to position error as central to life. In other words, replication errors and other information misreading/miswriting are natural to living organisms. Canguilhem was an early observer of the reconstitution of life as a frequently misconstrued code--life as error—an idea literalized in our own deliberate mishandling of the DNA and its subsequent translation into "failed" sounds. We take our title from Canguilhem's evocative but oblique summary of changing notions of disease after the introduction of the concept of "hereditary biochemical error": "to be sick is to have been made false, to be false, not in the sense of a false bank note or false friend, but in the sense of a false fold [i.e., wrinkle: faux plis] or a false rhyme" (1966/1999). These false rhymes characterize not only pathologized states of being, but also the normative condition of life, itself, for "whatever the mode, there is no interpretation which does not involve a possible mistake" (Canguilhem 1966/1999).