Mario Livio’s “Brilliant Blunders” is Thoughtful, Relevant Scientific History

Mario Livio’s BRILLIANT BLUNDERS is about five great scientists — Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein — and the biggest things they got wrong in their illustrious careers.  To lay out the case that such eminent scientists made these huge mistakes is only one part of Livio’s narrative, however, as Livio also explains how in at least two cases (Darwin and Einstein), the two of them actually got something wrong by getting something right.

Confused?  Don’t be, as I will explain.

Livio starts with Darwin, whose epic ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES failed to take into account the prevailing theory of genetics.  Pre-Mendelian genetics believed in something called “blended heritage,” which basically said if a mother and a father combined to make a child, the child would be one-half the mother and one-half the father rather than one hundred percent himself.  This “blending” would preclude any possibility of the species actually improving itself, because whatever genes were already there could only be combined.  By definition, they couldn’t really create anything new.

However, Darwin was actually right in what was happening (if he weren’t, I doubt we’d be having this discussion, nor would Livio have bothered to write so much as a paragraph about him), even though he was wrong about how it came about.  Darwin did try to explain what he saw, but as he didn’t know anything about Gregor Mendel nor Mendel’s experiments, he didn’t have the vocabulary to make any sense.

This was one of the two errors Livio points out were actually correct, but the reasoning behind them was wrong.  But the second was a much bigger deal, as it dealt with something Albert Einstein called the “cosmological constant” in his General Theory of Relativity (one of the few things that most students remember about their science classes is the equation E equals MC squared, where E equals energy, M equals mass and C equals the speed of light, and this is one of the pillars of Einstein’s overall theory).  The cosmological constant is something Einstein added to his equations because he just couldn’t figure out how the universe was able to keep going without collapsing utterly — Livio states that Einstein’s theories were generally “elegant,” and this cosmological constant was added for that reason.

However, Einstein later disavowed the cosmological constant, as he didn’t see the need for it.  Yet contemporary scientists have seen that the universe is still expanding and accelerating, and the cosmological constant does seem to play a part in understanding exactly what’s going on.

So Einstein was wrong in Livio’s estimation twice.  First, Einstein didn’t have enough reason to throw the cosmological constant into his equations in the first place (even though it helped them balance, or made them look better, whichever works depending on how much physics you actually understand).  And second, Einstein took the cosmological constant out when it really did make sense — it was just too far ahead of its time.

The other three scientists — Lord Kelvin, Hoyle, and especially Pauling — got a number of things wrong amidst all the good they did otherwise.  All three took different ways of dealing with their errors, however — Kelvin denied he’d made any even though he’d drastically miscalculated the age of the Earth, Hoyle knew he’d only gotten things partially right (his “steady-state universe” theory was wrong, but much of why he was convinced that theory would work was correct) but was such a curmudgeon that he couldn’t completely admit it even to his closest friends, and Pauling was extremely generous in defeat (as he nearly found the structure of DNA before scientists Watson and Crick, but made a terrible blunder in the chemistry that even new students wouldn’t make that led him completely down a wrong path) — which just goes to show the vagaries of humanity in full measure.

And that, partially, is the point of BRILLIANT BLUNDERS.  Because you see, errors are common in science, as science definitely does not always proceed in a straight line from point to point.

Oh, no indeed — science proceeds like everything else in life: It’s messy.  It’s complex.  It’s filled with personalities.  (There’s a really great story that Livio includes about how Hoyle was treated abominably at a scientific presentation that proves that in full measure.)  It goes off on tangents.  And a whole lot depends on what Livio calls “serendipity” — that is, if you get the right people together at the right time and in the right place, good things can happen providing you’re able to recognize the good things at the time and figure out how to explain them to your colleagues.

(Shades of Malcolm Gladwell’s OUTLIERS, again.)

So how do scientists get anything done?  Livio makes a strong case that it’s a combination of perspiration (read: hard work) and inspiration.  Then it’s trial and error (most likely the latter) before any new scientific theory is disseminated.  And then, after all the other scientists have weighed in, a theory proceeds to be assimilated and used — or not.

Bottom line?  If you’ve been looking for a book that explains in clear language to laymen the important theories of these five scientists, then lays out the case for each scientist’s “biggest blunder,” this book is for you.  And even if you haven‘t been specifically looking for information about scientific mistakes, there’s so much interesting information here about how scientific discoveries actually get made that this book is still for you if you have any interest in science whatsoever.

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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  1. Just Reviewed Mario Livio’s “Brilliant Blunders” at SBR | Barb Caffrey's Blog

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