Nina's Reading Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin’

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein–Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

Posted by nliakos on August 25, 2019

by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster 2013)

I’m a little confused by the title of this book. It is about mistakes made by great scientists, but it was the scientists who were brilliant, not the mistakes. And I don’t see how the mistakes changed our understanding of anything. They were just mistakes. Scientists are human beings, after all; they do make mistakes. Isn’t that how the scientific method works? Scientists learn from their mistakes. In some cases, maybe they didn’t, because they died before the knowledge they would have needed not to make the mistake became available.

Anyway, that’s just the title. The book is pretty clear that it’s about mistaken ideas of various scientific heroes:

  • Charles Darwin, who failed to take into account Gregor Mendel’s ideas about heredity (of which he was apparently unaware, and according to Livio, incapable of understanding the mathematics involved in any case). He “made do” with the wrong concept of “blending heredity”, even though he was not satisfied with it.
  • Sir Charles Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who believed that the Earth could not possibly be as old as geologists of the time claimed it was, and he stuck to that story until the end of his life, even though his own calculations were pretty effectively disproved by then.
  • Linus Pauling, whose faith in his “alpha-helix” model of DNA led him to reject the double-helix model of Francis Crick and James Watson, which turned out to be the correct one. One reason for this was that he never saw Rosalind Franklin’s “photograph 51”, which revealed the double-helix quite clearly. Also, he stubbornly ignore the fact that his nucleic acid molecule wasn’t even an acid, revealing a “disregard for some of the basic rules of chemistry”.
  • Fred Hoyle, who supported the concept of a steady state universe over the Big Bang Theory which is now I think universally accepted. Again, a lack of exposure to the thinking of another scientist, in this case the Belgian cosmologist Georges Lemaître, who had the misfortune to publish a seminal paper in an obscure Belgian journal. Had Hoyle been aware of Lemaître’s paper, he ostensibly would not have made the error that he made. Again, a lack of crucial knowledge resulted in a mistake.
  • Albert Einstein, who added a “cosmological constant” (Λ) to his Theory of General Relativity, then rejected it as unnecessary, while physicists around the world refused to allow it to die a natural death.

What struck me the most while reading the stories of these scientists and their mistaken ideas was how little scientists work in a vacuum. Rather, they are constantly in touch with one another, using the ideas and calculations of others to inform their own. I knew this in the abstract, but Livio’s book provides countless examples of interactions among scientists without which fundamental scientific ideas would likely never have been conceived, and several of the “blunders” were caused by a missed interaction: a paper not read, a photograph not viewed.

Livio makes a valiant attempt to explain the science to a lay person, but I still found a lot of it incomprehensible. This is not the author’s fault; the concepts (in biology, chemistry, physics, cosmology, and geology) are difficult, and I don’t have even a basic grounding in them. (Well, I took high school biology and an introductory geology class in college, so I understood those a bit better, but the physics, astrophysics, and chemistry had me flummoxed.)

He also speculates about why these brilliant scientists made the mistakes they made, whether due to denial, lack of information, over-confidence, reluctance to embrace something new, or sheer stubbornness.

The book is well-researched and interesting (to the extent that I could understand it), although not a page-turner.

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