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Books: ‘BRILLIANT BLUNDERS’ by Mario Livio

Young, Robert C. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000437979.71929.dd




That scientists, even great scientists, would make errors and even serious ones, might come as a surprise to the lay reader. However, it should not surprise most of us who are used to the tortuous nature of scientific discovery. One of the goals of Dr. Mario Livio's book Brilliant Blunders, he says, is to “correct the impression that scientific breakthroughs are purely success stories.”

That reality is well known to OT readers. Still Dr. Livio, an internationally known astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Institute in Baltimore, has carefully selected five examples of legendary scientists who have stumbled badly while exploring some of the greatest scientific questions of their day—Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. As Dr. Livio says, “the brain has limitations, even when it belongs to a genius.”

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Charles Darwin transformed our ideas about life from the mystical to the scientific in his 1859 book The Origin of Species, an exploration of evolution and natural selection. At that time the commonly held view was that progeny was the blending of the two parents, much like mixing paint. Darwin's blunder, according to Dr. Livio, was his failure to see that natural selection was impossible if the “mixed paint” model of heredity was correct.

But Darwin was not aware of the work of Mendel. He had experimented with pea crossings himself and had come tantalizingly close to the fatal flaw in the “paint mixing” theory. In 1842 he wrote, “Any one species allowed freely to cross, any small tendency to vary, will be constantly counteracted.” Unfortunately he missed its implications. He proposed an alternate theory of particulate inheritance where “granules” were sent to the reproductive cells to ensure that the change would be transmitted to the next generation. This does not appear to qualify as a blunder but merely as an alternative hypothesis, which would eventually be refuted by Mendelian genetics.

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Lord Kelvin was one of the preeminent physicists of his day and led the debate between physicists and geologists concerning the age of the earth. Using a brilliant series of measurements and hypotheses about the initial internal temperature of the earth, the rate of change according to the depth, and the value of the thermoconductivity of the crust, Kelvin estimated the age of the earth at 400 million years. It's now known that the earth is 3.5 billion years old, more than 50 times Kelvin's estimate.

Kelvin's incorrect hypothesis about heat conductivity and internal radioactivity, which was then unknown, account for much of the difference in these estimated ages. Kelvin's blunder in Dr. Livio's view was in ignoring and later objecting to the possibility that convection and radioactivity could alter his calculations. Fair enough—his bullheadedness probably did result in a delay in progress, but his work initiated a path to final resolution of the problem.

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Linus Pauling was considered the world's authority on chemical bonds and had discovered the structure of the alpha helix, the main structural feature of many proteins. In late 1951 he hastily proposed a triple helix for the structure of DNA. Pauling's structure failed to take into account his own 1948 observation of “the template model requiring two parts, complementary in structure, each serving as a mold for the production of a replica.” More surprisingly it failed to recognize that the structure was not an acid and violated the basic principles for an acid defined in his own textbook.

It fell to Watson and Crick, with the superlative x-ray crystallography of Rosalind Franklin, to derive the correct double helix structure four months later. Pauling's blunder was caused by not recognizing the central importance of DNA in heredity, his access to lesser-quality crystallography, and his two extraordinary memory lapses.

While this clearly does qualify as a monumental blunder, to his credit, Pauling was quick to recognize it and to publicly acknowledge that the double helix model was correct. Little delay in scientific progress resulted.

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Fred Hoyle was perhaps the world's leading astrophysicist for at least 25 years and ironically coined the term “big bang.” He was the principal advocate of the theory of the steady state universe.

He acknowledged that the universe was expanding but believed that matter was constantly being created throughout space. Initially telescopes were of insufficient power to resolve the debate. With the development of radioastronomy, it was established that distant galaxies had denser radio-sources than ours, making the steady state hypothesis no longer tenable.

Hoyle's blunder was to refuse to abandon the steady state theory in the face of overwhelming evidence. As Einstein once said, “conviction is a good motive but a bad judge.” That said, Hoyle's work did energize the field and allowed testable hypotheses to resolve the dilemma.

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Albert Einstein struggled with one aspect of his general relativity theory which implied that the universe would collapse on itself. He suggested that some repulsive force must be present to balance the gravitational force and inserted a cosmological constant into his equation. When it was shown that the universe was expanding, the original equation served nicely without the constant and Einstein removed it.

Livio says he believes that Einstein's blunder was to remove the constant. Later science revealed that when the universe was smaller, gravity had the upper hand. But as it expanded, Dark Energy, now 73 percent of the energy in deep space, became the dominant energy in the universe. This could be dealt with nicely with a cosmological constant.

To this reader, this seems the most contrived “blunder.” New data would certainly have quickly changed Einstein's mind, and scientific progress was not slowed.

Livio is a lively and deft storyteller and has chosen some fascinating scientists and some classic scientific questions. He presents clearly each of the flawed theories and points out their flaws. While some of the background detail is not germane to the issue of the blunders, it is well handled and informative.

My struggle with the book is not the science or the well-crafted narrative. It is whether these constitute scientific blunders at all. Arguably only Pauling's mistakes would qualify as blunders, and he was quick to see his errors once pointed out. As Pauling himself said to a colleague: “If you think you have a good idea, publish it! Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes do no harm in science because there are a lot of smart people out there who will immediately spot a mistake and correct it. You can only make a fool of yourself, and that does no harm, except to your pride. If it happens to be a good idea, however, and you don't publish it, science may suffer a loss.”

Dr. Livio appears to agree, as he says “Even the most impressive minds are not flawless; they merely pave the way for the next level of understanding.”


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