History in Review
Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein
Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe
By Mario Livio
Simon & Schuster, 2013
Reviewed by Harry S. Chou - June 10, 2013
When a scientist makes a mistake, does that mean that their research was a waste and no benefit can be garnered? As Mario Livio shows in Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, the answer is a resounding no. In this book he examines major blunders by five great scientists, blunders that in the long run actually made major advances in our understanding of various scientific principles and the universe as a whole.
The scientists whose blunders are highlighted in this book include:
Over the course of looking at the major blunders made by these men, Livio provides brief biographical sketches of each man, their past scientific endeavors, and the scientific work that they were doing at the time the blunder was made. Livio provides a detailed overview of the 'blunders' each made, and explains how and why these blunders occurred and how they actually aided the process of scientific inquiry and in many cases advanced our understanding of specific scientific tenets.
- Charles Darwin - who left heredity out his theory of evolution.
- Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) - who miscalculated the age of the earth.
- Linus Pauling - who had the wrong number of strands in his DNA model.
- Fred Hoyle - whose 'steady-state' theory for the origin of the universe gave way to the current 'Big Bang' theory.
- and, Albert Einstein - whose biggest blunder according to Livio was not his 'cosmological constant' that most have called his biggest blunder. Rather, Livio contends that the blunder was the fact that Einstein removed it from his equations. Livio explains why he thinks this was a mistake, and what would have been the outcome had he left it where it was!
Livio is a scientist in his own right. He is an astrophysicist who works at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and he is also the author of several other books including The Golden Ratio, The Equation that Couldn't Be Solved, and The Accelerating Universe. His scientific background provides him with the wherewithal to understand the science behind these blunders and to write about these eminent scientists with authority.
Most important, his skill as a writer allows him to translate this ofttimes complicated scientific activities into terms that anyone - no matter how limited their scientific background - can readily understand.
Brilliant Blunders is popular history at its best. The writing is riveting and the information presented is fascinating. These actual stories aside, this text is also important because it reminds readers that scientific breakthroughs are just as much a byproduct of failure as they are of success. You cannot have one without the other as failures (or blunders) help to show scientists when they are pursuing the wrong line of inquiry, or are working on a faulty premise. Scientists learn from their mistakes. Once these failures occur, they can redirect their efforts, try something else, and eventually, if they are successful, succeed in making some new discovery.
Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein is an edifying book that will delight everyone from budding scientists to those simply looking for some fodder to use at the next water cooler discourse!
Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy, by David Lindley.
This is a popular biography that provides a compelling overview of William Thomson's life and works, and which introduces a new generation to this nearly forgotten, but still vitally important scientific hero who is known to us today as Lord Kelvin.
E=mc2 A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis.
This book offers a readable and entertaining history of the equation E=mc2, and takes the reader on an informative romp through the development of the science of physics, and explores how Einstein's equation came into being and how it has been put to use.
Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling, by Thomas Hager
The definitive biography of Linus Pauling, a man who made important contributions to the fields of chemistry, biology, physics, immunology, and medicine and who tirelessly worked to ban nuclear testing. He was also an outspoken advocate of the benefits of Vitamin C.
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