We're a little crazy, about science!

Return of the experiment gremlins

Maybe the moon was not in the correct spot. Maybe the earth’s tilt was not optimal. Maybe we should’ve just called it a day. But for whatever reason, anything that could go wrong, did. We do our best to prep for these kind of events, but some days, nothing goes right. Today was one of those days and as frustrating as it can be for the experimenter, I’m sure our participant wasn’t thrilled about the constant problems either.

It was supposed to be a routine experiment. We’ve done this exact type of thing a few dozen times. Now I should probably clarify that the lab has done this a few dozen times, I have not. This experiment wasn’t one I was in charge of originally. Instead, because one of our team is out with COVID, I was tasked with handling the experiment myself. Which wasn’t a huge deal, I just needed the information on what to do. I’ve been in the lab for several years now, I can basically do everything these days. So going into the experiment I was already annoyed that I had just one more thing thrust on me, but what can you do?

Things were off to a rocky start right out of the gate. Only moments prior I had spent a good hour confirming that the equipment was set properly, everything was working, and even had a chance to play around with some of the stuff that really bothered me. Stuff that I was putting off because of lack of time/energy/desire, the usual. Anyway, at the time everything was working the way we expected it to work. No problems, because of course that’s how testing goes! Everything always works.

But between the testing and the setup for the actual experiment something must have happened. First we started losing EMG data, which was odd. So I spent a good chunk of time troubleshooting that. Eventually I think I figured out the problem, either that or the electrical gods felt pity on me and stopped ruining the equipment. In either case things started working and I wasn’t going to question it. Then we started the experiment, everything was going fine…

Until the people we were collaborating with asked if we could redo the full first session. Apparently their equipment wasn’t recording (oops). Each session lasts about 20-30 minutes and since we were already significantly behind schedule due to the EMG problems, we were now an hour into what should’ve been a two hour experiment with absolutely nothing to show for it. Okay, no big deal, we repeat the trial and move on to the next thing on the big checklist of experiment stuff that we need to do. Except then the equipment our collaborators we were working with started going out.

First it wasn’t a huge issue, just some minor things that made it hard for the participant to get feedback on, but we explained to them to ignore the issue and continue. Okay, so things are slowly progressing, we’re now two and a half hours into a two hour experiment, when it’s my turn to do stuff again. This time our equipment had a somewhat serious malfunction. I wish I was joking, after all the stuff the other team was dealing with, we had to swap out some of our equipment because somehow the equipment became damaged or was already damaged and using it just made it bad enough that we noticed the problem. This is now three hours into a two hour experiment.

The fix was thankfully pretty fast, but it was annoying and the things that went wrong just kept piling up. So the experiment continued, everything was running fine, then during the last bit our collaborator had to do the equipment had a catastrophic failure. Like need to take back to the lab and repair type failure. No one was hurt, it wasn’t that kind of failure, just the equipment itself stopped working completely and while we could identify why it broke, it was a problem that needed tools and lots of time to fix. So three and a half hours into a two hour experiment I finally could get the last bit done before we wrapped up the experiment.

Thankfully that portion went smoothly. Well as smoothly as could be expected given all the wild stuff that happened.We wrapped up the experiment, which took twice as long as it should’ve and that’s basically the end of the story. On our side, I’m not sure what was going on. I had equipment freeze (as in stop responding until I turned it off and back on again) that I’ve never had freeze before. Stuff I was sure couldn’t freeze like that, but some days nothing seems to go right and those days always happen to fall on experiment days, because of course they do.

Since I have no way of knowing what the hell happened or why it even occurred, I’m just going to have to chalk it up to experiment gremlins again. As a scientist, I cannot find any other plausible hypothesis that explains what we saw. It’s days like today that remind me that the robot apocalypse will almost certainly never occur, at least not in my lifetime. The day I don’t have to turn a piece of equipment off and back on again is the day I’ll start worrying about our robot overlords. Until then I think I’ll pass on any sort of invasive brain-computer interface too. There’s no telling what kind of gremlin issues would come from that.

But seriously this is yet another example of research life. The best laid plans of computers and men…

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