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

  • Mario Livio
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Julie Dunlap
  • June 12, 2013

The errors of five giants of science and the role these mistakes played in the vital process of discovery.

A solar eclipse in 1919 offered the first chance to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Telescopes in Africa and South America trained on the darkening sky, searching for evidence of the little-known physicist’s view: that the sun’s mass bends starlight. At last, a cable announcing positive results reached Einstein. How would he have reacted, a student asked, if the experiment had contradicted relativity? “I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord!” Einstein replied. “The theory is correct.”

Openness to fallibility, even God’s, is what Mario Livio asks of readers in a challenging and enlightening book, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. Each of the five icons of science that Livio analyzes transformed his field and expanded human knowledge, yet each also erred spectacularly. In this readable work for a popular audience, the author deftly explicates not only how and why these exalted thinkers stumbled but also how their monumental slipups catalyzed further progress. “Even the most impressive minds are not flawless,” writes Livio, “they merely pave the way for the next level of understanding.”

The author, a renowned astrophysicist who penned The Accelerating Universe and other exhilarating works, may have been drawn to study the role of errors in the history of science as a result of two decades working at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute. To NASA’s embarrassment soon after launch, the Hubble’s primary mirror was found to have been ground to the wrong specifications. But innovative engineers designed corrective optics — essentially spectacles for the spacecraft — that solved the problem and enhanced the telescope’s capabilities. As Livio exclaims in his aptly named blog, A Curious Mind: “This failure-turned-into-success story will undoubtedly become one of the most memorable Hubble legacies.”

The zigzag path toward scientific progress manifests itself clearly in the engrossing tale of Charles Darwin’s profound blunder. Livio likens Darwin’s stature to Newton’s and Einstein’s, calling biological evolution a “grand unifying conception” and “humankind’s most inspiring nonmathematical theory.” The Origin of Species, published in 1859, cast aside theological arguments for a divine watchmaker and eternal, immutable species. Instead, it offered Darwin’s deepest insight: the mechanism that could account for the wondrous diversity and adaptability of life. Yet natural selection, the mechanism behind Origin’s power, rested on a fundamental misconception of the laws of heredity. 

As did most 19th-century biologists, Darwin believed that parental traits blended together in each of their offspring. A gifted communicator, Livio proffers the analogy of a gin and tonic, mixed drink after drink with only tonic until you cannot taste the gin. If variant traits blend to the point of dispersion through sexual reproduction, natural selection could not lead to adaptive evolution. Even if he had he known about his contemporary, Gregor Mendel’s, pea plant experiments, Livio contends, Darwin still would not have grasped their significance. But, in keeping with Livio’s essential thesis, the need to reconcile Mendelian genetics and Darwinian selection fostered decades of fertile — and sometimes contentious — research, ultimately proving that the revolutionary ideas are complementary and mutually indispensable.

A relentless investigator, Livio sometimes turns to psychological and cognitive research for additional insights into the thought processes of his brilliant blunderers. He finds that Darwin’s misperception of inheritance probabilities was abetted by weak math skills, coupled with an “illusion of confidence” — a too human tendency to overestimate one’s abilities. Plain stubbornness plays a role in several stories, but astrophysicist Fred Hoyle carried pertinacity to cosmic heights. Despite computer-loads of data backing the Big Bang theory, Hoyle championed his Steady State theory of the universe for decades. By interviewing Hoyle’s former students, Livio exposes an independent thinker willingly at odds with the scientific establishment. In defining himself as a lone dissident, says Livio, Hoyle isolated himself from the corrective influence of scientific peers.

Beauty also plays a surprising role in the scientists’ failings. Two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling was too enamored with the beauty of the protein alpha helix that he discovered to imagine a double helix as the correct structure for DNA. Einstein’s devotion to aesthetic simplicity spurred him to add an ill-considered constant to his original equation for general relativity. As someone who shares a love of elegantly simple formulae, Livio writes at his impassioned best while recounting Einstein’s thought processes, illuminating a mind capable of deriving one framework bold enough to encompass gravity, space and time. 

Readers with dim memories of high school physics may sometimes grapple for comprehension, despite Livio’s heuristic talents. But stick with him. By examining these towering scientists through the high-powered lens of their worst lapses, Livio illuminates not just the individuals but also the vital process of discovery. The result is an interweaving of dazzling ideas, sometimes wrong — but always fecund. Einstein identified the “most beautiful fate” for a physics theory: “to point the way to the establishment of a more inclusive theory, in which it lives as a limiting case.” Thanks to Livio, such brilliant blunders as Einstein’s will help guide our way through the intellectual as well as the physical cosmos. 

Julie Dunlap is the author or co-author of award-winning children’s books, including John Muir and Stickeen: An Icy Adventure with a No-Good Dog (NorthWord, 2004), and co-editor of Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together (MIT Press, 2012). 

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