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Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein

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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
ISBN: 978-1-4391-9236-8

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.

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!


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