Ideas

Brainiac

On Second Thought: A welcome correction

BOSTON - OCTOBER 5: Dr. Jack Szostak attends a news conference after winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine October 5, 2009 in Boston, Massachusetts. Szostak, along with colleagues Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, won the prize for their work discovering telomerase, an enzyme which builds telomeres, and how it replaces DNA that has been worn off the tips of chromosomes. (Photo by Jodi Hilton/Getty Images)
Jack Szostak at a news conference after winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Oct. 5, 2009, in Boston.

Winners of the Nobel Prize might be smarter than most people — but they’re not infallible. When Jack Szostak learned that his team had made an error, he was embarrassed — and grateful. Szostak, a molecular biologist at Harvard University, shared the 2009 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for his work on aging. Earlier this month, he received an unwelcome holiday gift: a retraction of a 2016 paper in Nature Chemistry that purported to show how RNA could have preceded DNA as the source of life on Earth. Szostak told Retraction Watch that he was “incredibly excited” by the article, which, he felt, helped explain how RNA might have set the molecular table for DNA. But shortly after publication, a researcher in his lab realized she could not replicate the work. Indeed, the Harvard group had misinterpreted their data. Szostak called the error “definitely embarrassing,” but was grateful his own lab had found it before anyone else and was able to correct the mistake. If a Nobel Prize winner can admit to an error, why not the rest of us?

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