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The smell of burning metal tickled my nose as I stared intently at the oscilloscope on my messy desk. I looked back at the breadboard, and quickly realized what I had done. I hurried to rip the IC chip out of the circuit, burning my finger in the process. I took in the scene: 2 burnt IC chips, 3 breadboards, a noisy oscilloscope, and lots and lots of wires.
I was at the Naval Research Laboratory, interning in the Plasma Physics Division. My goal was to build a phase-locked loop to track the changes in capacitance in an RLC Circuit, eventually designing a circuit that could tracking a moving object. I spent weeks in my office researching; I borrowed a legion of books from other scientists and scoured the internet for hours before I could finally attempt to build the circuit, which resulted in failure. After weeks of no results, I developed my own idea– I would track voltage drops instead of noisy phase shifts! I wired the voltmeter to my circuit, making sure not to short it out again
Staring at the voltmeter, I nervously adjusted the capacitance. The voltage dropped! Still in disbelief, I successfully repeated the experiment with different capacitors. The next step was to track an object. Excitedly, I hung a metal sphere from my ceiling and emptied my office of all the furniture to minimize error. I stared at the voltage reading, dismayed to see it remain stagnant. I realized that the shift in capacitance created by the moving sphere was tiny and the equipment was not sensitive enough.
The inquiry seemed inconclusive, but the insights I took away from it were sound. After my internship, I learned that the problem I was working on stumped even the best scientists at the lab. My advisor gave it to me to teach me that when you work at the cutting edge of science, failure is more common than success, and that working to overcome failure is when real learning takes place.
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