Synopses & Reviews
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.
“Mario Livio sets the discoveries of five great scientists who were also remarkable personalities in their social context, showing how they emerged from confusion and controversy. His archival research allows him to debunk several myths that have been given currency through less thorough biographies. You don’t need to be a scientist to be fascinated by this scholarly, insightful and beautifully written book.” Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and author of From Here to Infinity: A Vision for the Future of Science
“It is said that genius is the ability to make all possible mistakes in the least amount of time. Livio’s genius is to show us just how much those mistakes have taught us.” Adam Riess, Thomas Barber Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, Nobel Laureate in Physics 2011
“Mario Livio wears many hats: scientist, sleuth, storyteller. In Brilliant Blunders, a delightful intellectual synthesis, he reminds us that he’s also one of the best science writers in our galaxy.” Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of X
“One of the most important things that distinguishes science from religion is that in science we (eventually) are happy to change our minds. This is called learning. As Mario Livio eloquently describes in this far-reaching and thoroughly enlightening book, many famous scientific advances involved either false starts or dead ends. In my own field, Einstein is purported to have said that inserting the cosmological constant into his equations of General Relativity was his ‘biggest blunder.’ In hindsight, as we find ourselves living in a Universe whose future may be determined by this quantity, most of us would now pay our eye teeth to have made such blunder!” Lawrence M. Krauss, Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; author of
“In Brilliant Blunders, Mario Livio leaves no historical detail untold, as we re-walk the error-filled pathways along which human understanding of the universe slowly emerged.” Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History, and author of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier
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 is perfect. And that includes five of the greatest scientists in history — Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. But the mistakes that these great luminaries made helped advance science. Indeed, as Mario Livio explains, science thrives on error, advancing when erroneous ideas are disproven.
As a young scientist, Einstein tried to conceive of a way to describe the evolution of the universe at large, based on General Relativity — his theory of space, time, and gravity. Unfortunately he fell victim to a misguided notion of aesthetic simplicity. Fred Hoyle was an eminent astrophysicist who ridiculed an emerging theory about the origin of the universe that he dismissively called “The Big Bang.” The name stuck, but Hoyle was dead wrong in his opposition.
They, along with Darwin (a blunder in his theory of Natural Selection), Kelvin (a blunder in his calculation of the age of the earth), and Pauling (a blunder in his model for the structure of the DNA molecule), were brilliant men and fascinating human beings. Their blunders were a necessary part of the scientific process. Collectively they helped to dramatically further our knowledge of the evolution of life, the Earth, and the universe.
About the Author
Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of The Golden Ratio, a highly acclaimed book about mathematics and art for which he received the International Pythagoras Prize and the Peano Prize; The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved; Is God a Mathematician?; and The Accelerating Universe. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.