“Science is failing 99% of the time, but it makes that 1% so much sweeter.” - BM Pettitt
This is something my boss during graduate school told me very early on. When he told me, I laughed and smiled, but I didn’t fully understand it until I worked more. I thought to myself, “Yeah, yeah, yeah… people fail… blah blah blah…” Even though he warned me, I still thought the failure rate was like 50%. I thought I’d do one good thing then one mistake then one good thing then one mistake.
That’s not how it works.
And this isn’t something you ever really understand until you get thick into the research yourself. It shouldn’t be hard to understand because when we hear of good scientists it is all too often about how their persistence produced some amazing discovery.
The most obvious example is Thomas Edison. He is often quoted as saying,
He is one of America’s most influential inventors ever. You would have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t know his name, and yet he seems to think my boss’s estimate of 99% is low. According to Edison it should be closer to 99.99% that scientists fail.
But the failures are not the story. The story is his persistence. The story is his successes, the times the persistence paid off. All of us are better off today because we have the amazing invention of the lightbulb. It is so amazing that it is now considered common and simple.
Edison wanted to create an efficient incandescent lamp. He wanted to make a lamp where electricity was used to heat a thin strip of material, a filament, until it gets hot enough to glow. This part is simple enough but making it efficient is not. Edison needed to figure out what type of material would make the best filament. He needed to find one that would glow, but not be too bright when in small spaces. He needed to find a material that would heat up but would not burn out too quickly. He believed so much in this that he built his own glass blowing shed so that he could continually make the fragile glass bulbs that enclosed his filaments.
His first working filament was made with platinum, but the lamp only burned for a few short hours. Imagine today’s world, but where we had to change out our light bulbs after every few hours of use. Frustrating. Edison knew he could do better and knew that the world would be better if he did, so he kept working.
He looked at the idea of carbonizing certain types of plants. This means that the complex material would be heated for a short time in high heat in order to break down the substance into a simpler one consisting of mostly carbon. He attempted this for over 6,000 different types of plants including baywood, boxwood, and hickory. Carbonized cotton thread was able to glow for about 15 hours. This still wasn’t enough. Then he experimented with carbonized bamboo. Edison and his team found that this material could last for over 1200 hours.
SIX THOUSAND different materials… That is astounding. The persistence of Edison is truly amazing. I cannot fathom failing 5,999 times and still having a fire and a passion to keep going.
This lack of drive is a trap that most of us fall into quite often, especially when it comes to prayer. I told you a few weeks ago that my husband and I had been praying a 54-day novena for us to become pregnant. This is something we both feel strongly about and so we have devoted it to prayer. We persistently pray daily for this to God. Good, right?
A few weeks ago, the Sunday readings spoke on this topic. The second reading told us “be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient.” (2 Tim 3:14-4:2) Then the Gospel tells of a widow who continually pleads with a judge. Then Jesus says, “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?” (Luke 18:1-8)
When I sat with these readings, I realized it was good that I was persistent in my prayer for a child, but I also realized that there was nothing else in my life that I persistently prayed for. Is there nothing that I care more about than being a mother? What about my family and friends’ health? What about the repose of my loved ones’ souls? What about the state of the world that I want to bring this child into? What about mine and my husband’s jobs? Nothing?
We are called to be prayer warriors. We are called to pray continuously for things that are important to us. A great example of this was St. Monica. She lived a life surrounded by a husband and mother-in-law who disliked her Christian beliefs. She prayed her whole life for their conversion which eventually happened before their death. Then when her son Augustine decided to live a life of sin, disagreeing with Christian teachings, she began to pray for him. She prayed for his conversion and gave offerings on his behalf. Not only did Augustine convert back to Christianity, he became a Saint. He is one of the most influential men of the Church with his writing of the book “Confessions.” Her prayers were answered. Her persistence was rewarded.
It is a testament to how much we care about something whether we offer it up to God. I had to take a minute and really think about my choices. Why wasn’t I praying more often for those other things? Did I not believe that God could help me with them? I am still working on this, but I am hoping to be as persistent as Edison, as persistent as St. Monica. I am hoping to offer to God all of the things that I care deeply about. I challenge you to take some time this week to really think about what you spend the most time praying for. Are they the things you care most deeply about? Would you say that you are persistently praying for them?
To close, I’d just like to remind you of a beautiful verse in Thessalonians,
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
And in case you were wondering, like I was, today’s light bulbs have filaments of tungsten and can last for 1000-2000 hours. This is not much longer than those made by Edison over 100 years ago. Impressive!