February 26, 2020

Review: Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio

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Many scientific discoveries often come out of left field.

The history of science (if we learn any of the history of science at all in school) is often depicted as a neat, tidy progression from ignorance to enlightenment. How could Isaac Newton not have formulated his laws of gravity and motion, or Einstein not have stumbled on his Theory of Relativity? It all seems foreordained in hindsight.

We never see the dead ends, the blind alleys, and the surreptitious moments that lead to monumental discoveries. This week’s review, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein: Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio out May 14th from Simon & Shuster books follows five examples of scientists that achieved brilliance in spite of, and in some cases because of their insightful mistakes.

We first heard of Mr. Livio’s new book while interviewing him for Universe Today on the tale of the Rabbi & the Comet. Brilliant Blunders wonderfully displays the often messy process by which theory becomes law, from Evolution to the Big Bang and much more.

We’re astounded by how such visionaries can have such deep insights well ahead of their time. For example, it’s amazing that Darwin came up with his theory of evolution via natural selection decades before Mendelian genetics was understood.  The mechanism by which mutations occurred (what Darwin would term as “monstrosities”) was also yet to be revealed, and the discovery of DNA was a full century away. That Darwin arrived at his ideas in spite of being able to reconcile them with the prevailing views of heredity was a blunder into sheer brilliance.

Brilliant Blunders also tackles how our understanding of the age of the Earth and the cosmos moved from a question of philosophy to one of science. In the case of Lord Kelvin, it was amazing that such an estimate, though far off the mark, was even attempted. This was back when radioactivity was poorly understood and there was no idea of how nuclear fusion powered the Sun.

Einstein is also examined in depth by the book. It’s been said that his insights single-handedly advanced modern physics by 50 years. Its uncanny how even when Einstein was wrong, he was often right, and these sorts of proofs of Relativity are still being made today. The author examines an assertion that has become mantra, demonstrating that Einstein probably never referred to Dark Energy as “his biggest blunder”… Dark Energy made a comeback into cosmological vogue in the 90’s after measurements of Type 1A supernovae revealed that not only was the cosmos expanding, but that expansion is accelerating. The smart money’s always on Einstein!

And speaking of expansion, the book also discusses Fred Hoyle’s refusal to give up the Steady State hypothesis. Ironically, he’s the one we have to thank for coining the term “The Big Bang.” Hey, it is a catchier name for a TV sitcom…

Some discoveries just slip out of the reach of even true genius, such as Linus Pauling’s failure to discover the structure of DNA. The book deals with the triumph and tragedy surrounding one of the greatest breakthroughs of the 20th century, and how it just slipped from Pauling’s grasp.

Make sure to check out Brilliant Blunders next week as one of the hottest new books on science history this summer. As a teacher, it always amazes me to think the amount of human history and knowledge that is compressed into something as simple as a students’ photo-copied periodic table. What would scientists of yore have given to even to take a peek at such hard won knowledge, even for a second?

Mr. Livio also blogs at A Curious Mind. Follow him @Mario_Livio on Twitter.


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