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Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe Hardcover – 6 Jun 2013
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Brilliant Blunders Mario Livio shows how even geniuses made major mistakes and how their errors were an essential aspect to achieving scientific breakthroughs Full description
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Darwin's blunder was not to realise that his theory of evolution was incompatible with the blending theory of heredity that was accepted at the time. This implied that any variation with new characteristics that arose by chance would quickly be lost. His attempts to overcome this problem were misguided and he fell victim to what modern psychologists call the `illusion of confidence', i.e. overestimating ones abilities. Nevertheless, the blunder paved the way for the mathematical theory of population genetics and the vindication of Mendel's theory of inheritance. Kelvin calculated the age of the Earth to be far smaller than the evidence from geology suggested, not because he knew nothing about radioactivity (which actually makes rather little difference to the result), but because he refused to accept that there could be convection currents from the Earth's core. His stubbornness stemmed from his knowledge that his mathematical abilities were undeniable and so he had total faith in his calculations. Pauling's attempt to solve the structure of DNA resulted in a model that violated some basic principle of chemistry that even a first year undergraduate would have known. How could this possibly have happened? Well, Pauling consider himself in a race with teams in Cambridge and London and it is likely that in his haste to rush something into print he totally lost focus, relying instead on his previous success with models of proteins. His blunder spurred on the efforts of the other teams, particularly that of Crick and Watson. Hoyle was one of the originators of the `steady-state' theory of the universe, in contrast to the Big Bang model. He was still defending this theory long after observational evidence had destroyed its credence. One reason for this may have been his isolation; he only worked with and had discussions with a close circle of friends. Einstein's blunder was to introduce a new term - the cosmological constant - into the equations of general relativity to counteract gravity and so produce a static universe, only to remove it when the universe was found not to be static, but actually expanding. This blunder has led to exhaustive studies of the equations of general relativity and cosmological models, and the reinstatement of the cosmological constant in another context.
This is a hugely entertaining and informative book constructed on rigorous research For example, by examining the Minute books of the Royal Astronomical Society, Livio definitively lays to rest the suggestion sometimes made that the discoverer of the expansion of the universe was Lemaitre and not Hubble. Another example is the famous, much quoted remark allegedly made by Einstein that the introduction of the cosmological constant was his `biggest blunder'. By examining all the relevant documents, the author shows that there is no evidence for this assertion, but considerable circumstantial evidence that it was made up by George Gamow, a physicist renowned for his sense of humour. The writing is informal but very clear, and difficult concepts are precisely explained without `dumbing down'. The text is backed up by numerous references and a bibliography for those readers who wish to explore further.
What we have in this immensely entertaining as well as informative book is a rigorous examination of various "colossal mistakes by great scientists that changed our understanding of life and the universe...As I hope to show, the analysis of these blunders forms a living body of knowledge that is not only captivating in its own right but also can guide actions in domains ranging from scientific practices to ethical behavior. The second reason is simple: The topics of life, of the Earth, and of the universe have intrigued humans -- not just scientists -- since the dawn of civilization, and have inspired tireless quests to uncover their origins and out past."
For example, consider these: Darwin's blunder was in not realizing the full implications of a particular hypothesis describing evolution and natural selection; Kelvin blundered by ignoring unforeseen possibilities; Pauling's blunder was the result of overconfidence bred by previous success; Hoyle erred in his obstinate advocacy of dissent from mainstream science; and Einstein failed because of a misguided sense of what constitutes simplicity. Livio discusses each of these within their historical as well as scientific context. All have, in one way or another, "acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs - hence their description as 'brilliant blunders.' They served as agents that lifted the fog through which science was progressing, in its usual succession of small steps occasionally punctuated by quantum leaps."
These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of Livio's coverage.
o Natural Selection (Pages 26-36)
o Darwin's Blunder and the Seeds of Genetics (41-44)
o The Earth and Life Gain a History (64-67)
o Global Cooling (67-79)
o On the Feeling of Knowing (96-102)
o Life's Blueprint (114-120)
o The Triple Helix (131-135)
o Anatomy of a [Pauling's] Blunder (137-144)
o And God Said, "Let There Be Hoyle" (169-183)
o Cosmic Expansion: Lost (in Translation) and Found (189-198)
o From the Largest to the Smallest Scales (247-252)
o The Accelerating Universe (252-256)
o Anthropic Reasoning (256-264)
o Mistakes of Genius (266-268)
The best works of non-fiction tend to be research-driven and that is certainly true of this one, as indicated by its abundant Notes (Pages 273-302) and comprehensive Bibliography (303-323). When concluding his book, Mario Livio observes, "Despite their blunders, and perhaps even [begin italics] because [end italics] of them, the five individuals I have followed and sketched in this book have produced not just innovations within their respective sciences but also truly great intellectual creations. Unlike many scientific works that target only professionals from within the same discipline as their audience, the oeuvres of these masters have crossed the boundaries between science and general culture. The impact of their ideas has been felt far beyond their immediate significance for biology, geology, physics, or chemistry. In this sense, the work of Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein comes closer in spirit to achievements in literature, art, and music -- both cut a broad swath across erudition."
When Einstein's collaborator, Leopold Infeld, noted that several of Einstein's original ideas were antiquated if not even wrong, he added, "it is one more instance showing how a wrong solution of a fundamental problem may be incomparably more important than a correct solution of a trivial, uninteresting problem." We are well-advised to consider, also, an observation by a 12th century French monk, Bernard of Chartres: "We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants." That is true of those who read this book but also true of the great scientists who are discussed in it.
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