If you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. And if you don’t try you do not succeed. I have read an amazing story about Michael Massimino, the American astronaut who went into open space to repair the Hubble space telescope. What is amazing about it besides the obvious? First, it is the story of how Michael became an astronaut, how many times he applied and was rejected but persevered and finally got accepted. Second, it is the description of how long it took for the team to train before they went into space with this task: five years. They designed and tried out tools on models, they learned the whole structure of the telescope by heart, and they worked with simulation models. At last they were ready. But of course they knew this important fact: when you are in space, be ready for the unexpected.
Michael stepped out into space, carefully reached the telescope and began his slow repair work. He had to remove a handrail that was blocking the access panel. He unscrewed three screws out of four, but the fourth one would not budge. He looked closely and discovered that the last screw was stripped, so that his tool could not grip and turn it. Imagine that, and imagine yourself in his place. What does one do when faced with such a challenge in open space?
Yes, he managed to solve the problem and eventually to repair the telescope, not without help from Houston. You can Google the whole story and look at the awesome photos.
So it often happens in research. Anyone may be faced with difficulties which seem insurmountable; any experiment may turn out to be dangerous or bring in unpredictable results. I have heard a number of scientists talk about their research which took several years, and the net result was, whatever it is they were doing had no practical use. Surprise! In science, a negative result is a result, too. Your academic advisor or your boss may be looking not only at your academic qualifications, at your grade point average and your aptitude in a lab. They may also be looking at you to gauge your ability to overcome the inevitable problems and setbacks. There is a fine line between being over-zealous and over-optimistic and between giving up easily and succumbing to pessimism. How do we know what is the right course of action, or inaction as the case may be? Well, we don’t work in a vacuum. Listen to your more experienced colleagues, watch your superiors, and trust your own knowledge. With today’s means of communication, even in a vacuum help is always just a click away. If all else fails, you are it.