My experiment won’t work (or, Why I am not a biologist)

Let me take you back a few years, to when I was in year 9 at school, in the fair county of Sussex (in UK). In my biology class we did an experiment to look at the preference for woodlice for light or dark. Basically two petri dishes, one painted back, with lids, joined together so that the woodlice could choose whether to be in the light or the dark. I popped in six lice, and, hey presto, they scuttled about and then settled down with five in the light dish and one in the dark dish.

My biology teacher then tells me that my results are wrong.  Err, no, Mr X. My results are five in the light, one in the dark. That’s what they are. I can’t help it if I’ve selected woodlice that are blind or have alzheimer’s or whatever.  That is where they sat.

Now, all these years later, I am happy to accept that maybe my statistics are a bit limited (six woodlice hardly proves anything) or the method is poor, or the interpretation of the results is misguided, but my results are still my results. They are not ‘wrong’.

Up to this point I may have been destined to become a biologist. (Let’s face it, physics was boring – chemistry was good fun though – it wasn’t until university that I was put off that, but that’s another story).  But that one event moved me away from biology. Never underestimate the power of things said to a student, of any age. I wonder what I have been guilty of in this regard.

 I am reminded of this story because yesterday a couple of students of mine were struggling to get the ‘right’ results out of an experiment. Just what is happening would take some time for us to analyse, and they may have been doing something wrong, but I don’t know. Undertaking a good experiment is never easy, and I have nothing but admiration for people like Millikan, who spent hours patiently observing oil drops in order to deduce the charge on the electron.

P.S. I love Wikipedia’s comment on the oil drop experiment: "since repeated, with varying degrees of success, by generations of physics students". I can vouch for the ‘varying’ bit.


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