Navigating Failure

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Navigating Failure

As long as you learn, you can't fail

The Mars Climate Orbiter disintegrated in the Martian atmosphere because a subcontractor programmed its thrusters in imperial units instead of the metric units NASA was using. Image courtesy of NASA.

Life in physics doesn’t always go smoothly. Mistakes can be mortifying, like the time you accidentally melted that expensive piece of equipment and set your lab bench on fire. They can be hilarious, like the time you accidentally emailed that video of you singing Justin Bieber songs to your professor.

This issue of The SPS Observer explores three high-profile projects that failed and what those failures meant for the communities involved.

We start with the story of superconductivity, as told by condensed-matter physicist Jörg Schmalian. This phenomenon stumped the biggest names in physics for years, proving that some problems are inherently hard.

Then John Logsdon will explore the factors that led to the Columbia shuttle disaster; he sat on the board that investigated it. Both projects offer lessons in the human factors that can cause big projects to fail.

We next move on to the tale of the never-fished Superconducting Supercollider by Michael Riordan, who has recently written a book on the subject.

Finally, we asked you, the SPS community: “What’s your most epic physics fail?” You wrote in via email and social media with your stories, serious and funny. We picked a selection of them to feature here. Enjoy! //

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