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). 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.
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Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist, a bestselling author, and a popular speaker who has appeared on The Daily Show, 60 Minutes, and NOVA. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Besides Why? What Makes Us Curious, he is the author of The Golden Ratio, a highly acclaimed book for which he received the International Pythagoras Prize and the Peano Prize; The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved; Is God a Mathematician? (which was the basis for the 2016 Emmy-nominated NOVA program “The Great Math Mystery”); the national bestseller Brilliant Blunders; and The Accelerating Universe. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
Brilliant Blunders PREFACE
Throughout the entire period that I have been working on this book, every few weeks someone would ask me what my book was about. I developed a standard answer: “It is about blunders, and it is not an autobiography!” This would get a few laughs and the occasional approbation “What an interesting idea.” My objective was simple: to correct the impression that scientific breakthroughs are purely success stories. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is the road to triumph paved with blunders, but the bigger the prize, the bigger the potential blunder.
Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, wrote famously, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” In the time that has passed since the publication of his The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), we have made impressive progress in understanding the former; considerably less so, in my humble opinion, in elucidating the latter. It is apparently much more difficult to make life or mind comprehensible to itself. Nevertheless, the life sciences in general—and the research into the operation of the human brain in particular—are truly picking up speed. So it may not be altogether inconceivable after all that one day we will even fully understand why evolution has concocted a sentient species.
While this book is about some of the remarkable endeavors to figure out life and the cosmos, it is more concerned with the journey than with the destination. I tried to concentrate on the thought process and the obstacles on the way to discovery rather than on the achievements themselves.
Many people have helped me along the way, some maybe even unknowingly. I am grateful to Steve Mojzsis and Reika Yokochi for discussions on topics related to geology. I thank Jack Dunitz, Horace Freeland Judson, Matt Meselson, Evangelos Moudrianakis, Alex Rich, Jack Szostak, and Jim Watson for conversations on chemistry, biology, and specifically on Linus Pauling’s work. I am indebted to Peter Eggleton, John Faulkner, Geoffrey Hoyle, Jayant Narlikar, and Lord Martin Rees for helpful discussions on astrophysics and cosmology, and on Fred Hoyle’s work.
I would also like to express my gratitude to all the people who provided me with invaluable materials for this book, and in particular to: Adam Perkins and the staff of the Cambridge University Library, for materials on Darwin and on Lord Kelvin; Mark Hurn of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, for materials on Lord Kelvin and on Fred Hoyle; Amanda Smith of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, for materials on Fred Hoyle and for processing photos related to Watson and Crick; Clifford Meade and Chris Petersen of the Special Collections Department of Oregon State University, for materials on Linus Pauling; Loma Karklins of the Caltech Archives, for material on Linus Pauling; Sarah Brooks from the Nature Publishing Group, for material on Rosalind Franklin; Bob Carswell and Peter Hingley for materials on Georges Lemaître from the Royal Astronomical Society; Liliane Moens of the Archives Georges Lemaître, for materials on Georges Lemaître; Kathryn McKee of St. John’s College, Cambridge, for materials on Fred Hoyle; and Barbara Wolff of the Albert Einstein Archives, Diana Kormos Buchwald of the Einstein Papers Project, Daniel Kennefick of the University of Arkansas, Michael Simonson of the Leo Baeck Institute, Christine Lutz of Princeton University, and Christine Di Bella of the Institute for Advanced Study for materials on Einstein.
Special thanks are due to Jill Lagerstrom, Elizabeth Fraser, and Amy Gonigam of the Space Telescope Science Institute, and to the staff at the Johns Hopkins University Library for their continuous bibliographic support. I am grateful to Sharon Toolan for her professional help in preparing the manuscript for print, to Pam Jeffries for skillfully drawing some of the figures, and to Zak Concannon for cleaning some of the figures. As always, my most patient and supportive ally has been my wife, Sofie.
Finally, I thank my agent, Susan Rabiner, for her relentless encouragement; my editor, Bob Bender, for his thoughtful comments; Loretta Denner, for her assistance during copyediting; and Johanna Li, for her dedication during the entire production of this book.
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