Brilliant Blunders: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: May 18th, 2013 by bobmorris

Brilliant BlundersBrilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe
Mario Livio
Simon & Schuster (2013)

How and why the blunders described in this book “have all, some way or another, acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs”

Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) was a French astronomer and mathematician, widely viewed today as one of the greatest scientists of all time. What intrigues me most about him are his mistakes from which he and others learned valuable lessons. There is a brief reference to him in Brilliant Blunders (on Page 74) as Mario Livio discusses research by William Thomas (Lord Kelvin): To calculate the Sun’s age, “he borrowed elements from theories for the formulation of the solar system proposed by the French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.” Livio’s purpose in the book is to cite various “momentous blunders in a wide range of disciplines” that proved “brilliant” because they helped to advance substantially the progress of scientific knowledge. As Livio explains, “I hope to demonstrate that the road to discovery and innovation can be constructed even through the unlikely path of blunders made by Lord Kelvin as well as by Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein.

What we have in this immensely entertaining as well as informative book is a rigorous examination of various “colossal mistakes by great scientists that changed our understanding of life and the universe…As I hope to show, the analysis of these blunders forms a living body of knowledge that is not only captivating in its own right but also can guide actions in domains ranging from scientific practices to ethical behavior. The second reason is simple: The topics of life, of the Earth, and of the universe have intrigued humans — not just scientists — since the dawn of civilization, and have inspired tireless quests to uncover their origins and out past.”

For example, consider these: Darwin’s blunder was in not realizing the full implications of a particular hypothesis describing evolution and natural selection; Kelvin blundered by ignoring unforeseen possibilities; Pauling’s blunder was the result of overconfidence bred by previous success; Hoyle erred in his obstinate advocacy of dissent from mainstream science; and Einstein failed because of a misguided sense of what constitutes simplicity. Livio discusses each of these within their historical as well as scientific context. All have, in one way or another, “acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs – hence their description as ‘brilliant blunders.’ They served as agents that lifted the fog through which science was progressing, in its usual succession of small steps occasionally punctuated by quantum leaps.”

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of Livio’s coverage.

o Natural Selection (Pages 26-36)
o Darwin’s Blunder and the Seeds of Genetics (41-44)
o The Earth and Life Gain a History (64-67)
o Global Cooling (67-79)
o On the Feeling of Knowing (96-102)
o Life’s Blueprint (114-120)
o The Triple Helix (131-135)
o Anatomy of a [Pauling’s] Blunder (137-144)
o And God Said, `Let There Be Hoyle’ (169-183)
o Cosmic Expansion: Lost (in Translation) and Found (189-198)
o From the Largest to the Smallest Scales (247-252)
o The Accelerating Universe (252-256)
o Anthropic Reasoning (256-264)
o Mistakes of Genius (266-268)

The best works of non-fiction tend to be research-driven and that is certainly true of this one, as indicated by its abundant Notes (Pages 273-302) and comprehensive Bibliography (303-323). When concluding his book, Mario Livio observes, “Despite their blunders, and perhaps even [begin italics] because [end italics] of them, the five individuals I have followed and sketched in this book have produced not just innovations within their respective sciences but also truly great intellectual creations. Unlike many scientific works that target only professionals from within the same discipline as their audience, the oeuvres of these masters have crossed the boundaries between science and general culture. The impact of their ideas has been felt far beyond their immediate significance for biology, geology, physics, or chemistry. In this sense, the work of Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein comes closer in spirit to achievements in literature, art, and music — both cut a broad swath across erudition.”

When Einstein’s collaborator, Leopold Infeld, noted that several of Einstein’s original ideas were antiquated if not even wrong, he added, “it is one more instance showing how a wrong solution of a fundamental problem may be incomparably more important than a correct solution of a trivial, uninteresting problem.” We are well-advised to consider, also, an observation by a 12th century French monk, Bernard of Chartres: “We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.” That is true of those who read this book but also true of the great scientists who are discussed in it.

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