The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 9 February 2014

Brilliant Blunders

From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists
That Changed our Understanding of Life and the Universe

by Mario Livio

The way science works is not well understood these days. We have allowed the public perception to drift toward a fundamental mistrust and misunderstanding of the nature of scientific method. Elected members of Congress have publicly declared that when a scientific idea is changed, it means the scientists have been lying all along. Somehow, people have come to believe that scientists are just making up stuff to blindly believe and that when those ideas change, it reveals deception. This is crazy, but it is the kind of "common sense" that springs from anti-intellectual prejudice. There are those who think educated people, scientists in particular, are just pulling the wool over the eyes of everyone else, that they're somehow stealing something from those less educated and less fortunate. This is actually a dangerous notion, and it serves a particular kind of political aspiration.

Therefore, the idea that great scientists make colossal blunders might be greeted with some satisfaction. Perhaps this book is poorly titled. What it does, and does with engaging intelligence, is describe the very human endeavor of science, and the very nature of scientific inquiry. Livio visits some of the greatest scientists in history, Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle and Albert Einstein. He examines the history of the particular scientific problems these great men addressed, and he reveals how certain prejudices, stubborn ideas, odd notions and misdirections affected the theories they devised and the subsequent investigations that lead ultimately to great insights about nature and the universe. Along the way, Livio explores the way science works, the self-correction that comes when it is applied disinterestedly and methodically. He also explores the way humans devise ideas and how they cling to them, sometimes against preponderance of evidence. In each case, the scientists made bold and productive progress in our understanding of the world. In each case, there was a flaw, the dropped idea, or the too-dear clinging to a bad idea. In the case of Einstein, it was the cosmological constant, the great "fudge factor" he introduced because he clung to the notion of a steady-state universe. In an apocryphal quote, he called it his "greatest blunder." More than eighty year later, it is the key idea in a discovery that earned other scientists the Nobel Prize. In the end, his greatest blunder was discarding the idea in the first place. Livio uses this story, and the others, in a sprawling narrative that touches on some esoteric and fascinating scientific discoveries. The book is rich with ideas and personalities. It is aimed at the popular audience, but does not dumb down some of its more subtle ideas. The book is engrossing and entertaining, and, despite its somewhat unfortunate title, it does a service to science and the way science pursues its ideas.

[Mail John][To List]

[Other History & Biography]