Biography

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein by Mario Livio

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

Drawing on the lives of five renowned scientists, Mario Livio shows how even these geniuses made major mistakes and how their errors were an essential part of the process of achieving scientific breakthroughs.

WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES. Nobody’s perfect. Not even some of the greatest geniuses in history, as Mario Livio tells us in this marvelous story of scientific error and breakthrough.

Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein were all brilliant scientists. Each made groundbreaking contributions to his field—but each also stumbled badly. Darwin’s theory of natural selection shouldn’t have worked, according to the prevailing beliefs of his time. Not until Gregor Mendel’s work was known would there be a mechanism to explain natural selection.

How could Darwin be both wrong and right? Lord Kelvin, Britain’s leading scientific intellect at the time, gravely miscalculated the age of the earth. Linus Pauling, the world’s premier chemist (who would win the Nobel Prize in chemistry) constructed an erroneous model for DNA in his haste to beat the competition to publication. Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle dismissed the idea of a “Big Bang” origin to the universe (ironically, the caustic name he gave to this event endured long after his erroneous objections were disproven).

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And Albert Einstein, whose name is synonymous with genius, speculated incorrectly about the forces that hold the universe in equilibrium—and that speculation opened the door to brilliant conceptual leaps. These five scientists expanded our knowledge of life on earth, the evolution of the earth itself, and the evolution of the universe, despite and because of their errors. As Mario Livio luminously explains, the scientific process advances through error. Mistakes are essential to progress.

Brilliant Blunders is a singular tour through the world of science and scientific achievement—and a wonderfully insightful examination of the psychology of five fascinating scientists.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Astrophysicist and award-winning author Livio (The Golden Ratio) analyzes ruinous errors of five great scientific minds in the wake of their most prominent discoveries and how those errors have not only propelled scientific breakthroughs, but provide “insights…into the operation of the human mind.” Summoning Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein, Livio argues there is no progress without lessons in humility. These thinkers succumbed to moments of fear, pride, stubbornness, and doubt common to all “mere mortals”—to the benefit of elucidating the evolution of life and the universe. Two-time Nobel prize-winning chemist Pauling’s flub of basic chemistry catalyzed the discoveries of Watson and Crick; Hoyle, a cosmologist who displayed “pigheaded, almost infuriating refusal” to give up his thoroughly refuted “steady state theory”, energized advanced studies of how we exist in space with his controversial ideas; and Einstein, “the embodiment of genius”, refused to give up on his cosmological constant, “the most famous fudge factor in the history of science.” With humor and precision, Livio reminds us: “Even the most impressive minds are not flawless; they merely pave the way for the next level of understanding.” (May)

Review

“Mario Livio sets the discoveries of five great scientists who were also remarkable personalities in their social context, showing how they emerged from confusion and controversy. His archival research allows him to debunk several myths that have been given currency through less thorough biographies. You don’t need to be a scientist to be fascinated by this scholarly, insightful and beautifully written book.” (Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and author of From Here to Infinity: A Vision for the Future of Science)

“After reading Livio’s account, I look on the history of science in a new way. In every century and every science, I see brilliant blunders.” (Freeman Dyson The New York Review of Books)

“Scientists make mistakes all the time, but those bumps in the road are often smoothed out in the legends that surround the greatest discoverers. . . . Thoughtful, well-researched and beautifully written, Brilliant Blunders offers a distinctive — and far more truthful — perspective on the journey to scientific discovery.” (Marcia Bartusiak The Washington Post)

“Enlightening. . . . For many people, being a great scientist means being above error. . . . Livio’s book is a valuable antidote to this skewed picture. . . . Thanks to his deep curiosity, Livio turns Brilliant Blunders into a thoughtful meditation on the course of science itself.” (Carl Zimmer The New York Times Book Review)

“Elegant, entertaining, and instructive.” (Andrew Robinson The Lancet)

“It is said that genius is the ability to make all possible mistakes in the least amount of time. Livio’s genius is to show us just how much those mistakes have taught us.” (Adam Riess, Thomas Barber Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, Nobel Laureate in Physics 2011)

“Taking risks is part of genius, and genius is not immune to bloopers. Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders leads us through the circumstances that surrounded famous gaffes. . . . Mr. Livio helps us see that such spectacular errors are opportunities rather than setbacks.” (Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health)

“Mario Livio wears many hats: scientist, sleuth, storyteller. In Brilliant Blunders, a delightful intellectual synthesis, he reminds us that he’s also one of the best science writers in our galaxy.” (Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of X)

“In Brilliant Blunders, Mario Livio leaves no historical detail untold, as we re-walk the error-filled pathways along which human understanding of the universe slowly emerged.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History, and author of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier)

Mr. Livio is a gifted storyteller. . . .[He] shows how science works partly by feeding on past mistakes: Once recognized, the errors sparked creativity in other scientists. An incorrect view of the world is not simply a mistake; it’s a catalyst that leads to better understanding.” (Samuel Arbesman The Wall Street Journal)

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Originally published: 14 May 2013

AuthorMario Livio

Genre: Biography

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