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A brilliant book about brilliant scientific blunders
on 15 December 2013
Brilliant blunders? How can blunders be brilliant? Well they sometimes can if they are made by scientists of the calibre of Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, or even lesser geniuses such as Linus Pauling and Lord Kelvin. The blunder itself can act as a catalyst and open up entirely new ways of looking at nature. In this book, the astrophysicist Mario Livio illustrates this by examining the cases of five iconic scientists from different disciplines - Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Einstein and Hoyle - whose work has transcended science and extended out to general culture. The nature of their blunders is different in each case and illustrates some universal human traits. They demonstrate that the road to discovery and innovation can be constructed even via the unlikely path of blunders.
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.