The Art of Failure 

Micro-archipelago , polymer on silicon, light microscope

Micro-archipelago, polymer on silicon, light microscope

“I was producing miniature optical components by sculpting very thin films. These films love to detach themselves from surfaces, so in this experiment I was investigating if an adhesive layer would help to hold them down. This process involved a heating step, and to avoid destructive surface tension effects one first had to dry the sample. I forgot to perform this step and watched in horror as my perfect sample tore itself apart on the hotplate. While taking pictures of the sample under the microscope, I was struck by the beautiful iridescent patterns and agglomerates formed. It was reminiscent of a false-color topographic map of island groups, but these colors were real and breath-taking! I kept this image to remind myself that often failure in one domain can reveal insight or beauty in another. Experiments tend to be rather boring when they work precisely as expected. Mistakes and failure, though, are typically nothing short of spectacular: organic and fractal Rorschach blobs form when nature finds a way to defeat the well-controlled experiment.” 

Soon Wei Daniel Lim (BS ’17), reflecting on the experience that led to the creation of this image while he was a student at Caltech. Lim is currently working towards a PhD in applied physics at Harvard University. 

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SoCaltech, Fall 2019Jon Nalick