Mario Livio: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: June 15th, 2013 by bobmorris

Livio, MarioMario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the institute which conducts the scientific program of the Hubble Space Telescope, and will conduct the scientific program of the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. He has published more than 400 scientific papers and received awards and recognition for research, for excellence in teaching, and for his books. His interests span a broad range of topics in astrophysics, from cosmology and black holes, to extrasolar planets and the emergence of intelligent life in the universe. Livio’s popular book The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World’s Most Astonishing Number, won him the “Peano Prize” for 2003, and the “International Pythagoras Prize” for 2004. His latest book, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein — Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, was released on May 14, 2013, and received rave reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Here is my interview of him.

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Morris: Before discussing Brilliant Blunders, a few general questions. First, who had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Livio: I had a teacher in High School, his name was Imry. While he might have not been the greatest teacher for the entire class, he certainly inspired me to appreciate hard problems in mathematics and physics.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Livio: The fact that I have taken both mathematics and physics as majors, has given me a broader perspective on how to think about problems and how to approach their solutions.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Livio: Good quote. I wish all world leaders would take this as advice.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Livio: Nice. Reminds me of a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Science becomes dangerous only when it imagines that it has reached its goal.”

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Livio: Wonderful. No one could have put it better than Wilde. Probably the best advice you can give to a young woman or man.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Livio: Absolutely true. Again reminds of a quote from, believe it or not, Wayne Gretzky: ” I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Livio: In some sense, the same thinking is at the basis of “crowd sourcing.” Most of the time, this is a good idea. However, when “outside the box” thinking is required, this is often difficult to achieve with too large groups, which tend to converge to a mean.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Livio: He is right. Please note that this is not an advocacy for being sloppy. This is simply a recognition of the fact that innovative thinking requires taking some calculated risks.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exceptions) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Livio: I have not checked if this is indeed a historical fact, but if it is, I imagine that this reflects their ability to understand what is truly important.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Livio: I am not an expert in this field, but my guess is that people find it very hard to adapt to changes that occur on a time scale that is much shorter than the time it takes them to learn new things. One should strive for an OPTIMAL (rather than MAXIMAL) rate of change.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Brilliant Blunders. When and why did you decide to write it?

Livio: I started writing it about four years ago. I have realized for a long time that many have a misconception about how science progresses. In most textbooks and popular descriptions, progress appears to be a direct march from A to B. Nothing could be further from the truth. Science progresses in a zigzag path, with many false starts and blind alleys. I wanted to make this clear. I also wanted to emphasize this point that even the greatest luminaries have made some serious blunders — breakthroughs often come from taking risks.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Livio: I did an enormous amount of research, and solved at least two mysteries. One had to do with the discovery of cosmic expansion. There I have clarified the contribution of cosmologist Georges Lemaitre, and have cleared Edwin Hubble form allegations of censorship. I have also shown, I believe quite convincingly, that Einstein probably never used the term “my biggest blunder,” whenever discussing the cosmological constant.

Morris: As I indicate in my review for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain what you view as the key take-away in several.

Livio: Here are a few I cite from the book:

o “No scientific theory has an absolute and permanent value.” “Blunders of genius are often indeed the portals of discovery.”

o “Doubt is an essential operating principle in science.”

o “Humans are not purely rational beings, capable of completely turning off their passions.”

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant differences between mistakes and blunders?

Livio: I treated blunders as being major mistakes, of the type that could jeopardize entire theories, or game plans.

Morris: You introduce Chapter 1 with a quotation from Victor Hugo: “Great blunders are often made, like large ropes, of a multitude of fibres. Take the cable thread by thread, take separately all the little determining motives, you break them one after another, and you say: that is all. Wind them and twist them together and they be come an enormity.”

Please explain the relevance of these remarks to the various scientific blunders that you examine in your book.

Livio: Basically, what I have done in the book is really to analyze in detail all the elements of the different blunders, their potential causes, and how they have eventually led to new discoveries.

Morris: Why do you focus primarily on the topics of the evolution of life, of the Earth, and the universe?

Livio: Because these topics represent almost an “executive summary” of knowledge. We have laws of nature that don’t change, but they nevertheless predict an evolution in everything in the cosmos, and those different evolutions are connected. For example, the evolution of the universe has allowed for the appearance of stars, and the evolution of stars created the elements required for the formation of the Earth and for the emergence of life.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read your book and are unfamiliar with the five scientists you discuss, please explain what you view as the single most valuable contribution each has made to thought leadership. First, Albert Einstein

Livio: He completely changed our perspective on two of the most basic things — space and time.

Morris: Next, Charles Darwin

Livio: He transformed the ideas of life on Earth from myth into a science.

Morris: Also, Lord Kelvin

Livio: He showed how one can apply the laws of physics to problems that we previously had no idea how to tackle.

Morris: Then, Linus Pauling

Livio: He proclaimed that no “vital forces,” only chemistry, underlie life.

Morris: Finally, Fred Hoyle

Livio: He showed that all the elements that are essential for life are forged in the hot interiors of stars.

Morris: However different the five scientists may be in many (if not most) respects, what do they share in common?

Livio: Each one of these was the most original thinker of his time.

Morris: Here are two of several quotations in the book that caught my eye. Please share your thoughts about each. First, from Max Planck: “New scientific truth does not triumph by convincing the opponents and making them see the light; but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Livio: Sad, but sometimes true,

Morris: Next, from Charles Darwin: “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

Livio: We should always remain modest, and remember that even the greatest thinkers can be wrong.

Morris: While re-reading your book before formulating questions for this interview, I was reminded of an incident that occurred decades ago. One of Einstein’s Princeton colleagues was chiding him good-naturedly about the fact that he always asked the same questions on his final examinations. “Quite true.” Every year, the answers are different.” Your response?

Livio: Maybe not quite literally true, but certainly expressing the important fact that science is continuously progressing.

Morris: Here is what I readily concede to be an odd question but I’ll ask it nonetheless. If you were a graduate student and could spend an entire summer as an intern for one of the five scientists, which would you select? Please explain.

Livio: Einstein or Darwin. Each one of them brought about a true revolution. To experience, first hand, how each one of those was thinking, would have been invaluable.

Morris: I have a special interest in great teams such as the Disney animators who produced so many classics such as Snow White, Bambi, and Pinocchio; also those involved with Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” the Manhattan Project, and Xerox PARC. Most (if not all) were geniuses and yet they were able to work very well together. How do you explain that?

Livio: Some activities are better suited to teamwork than others. Especially activities that require a very broad range of expertise to reach the goal.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Brilliant Blunders and is now determined to improve decision-making capabilities at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Livio: Develop a culture which allows for open exchange of ideas and for a certain amount of risk taking and outside the box thinking.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Brilliant Blunders, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Livio: Allow for innovative thinking especially in the early phases of projects. Then, even if one encounters a dead end, it is not very costly.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Livio: It’s not that I hoped but that many people ask me if I have made some brilliant blunder in my career. I tend to answer that I have certainly made some blunders, but none of them was particularly brilliant…certainly when compared to the ones I describe in the book.

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Mario cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His home page link

His Amazon page link

His Huffington post link

Wikipedia link

Twitter link

Facebook link

A Curious Mind blog

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