Brilliant Blunders

…is a book published in May by astrophysicist Mario Livio. He was interviewed for an hour on C-SPAN’s “After Words” program this past weekend (video stream, podcast). The interview’s well worth a listen if you have the time.

Brilliant Blunders cover
The theme of the book is that even the very greatest scientists can get important concepts wrong, not just because of limited data or other understandable limits, but due rather to logical mistakes using the evidence at hand, including misuse or mis-apprehension thereof. Five scientists–Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein–are profiled, all prominent scientists who studied either physical or biological evolution from the mid-19th century onward. I thought the show did a very good job of balancing discussions of the great achievements of these five, with their mistakes, and discussing how making great discoveries may also, perhaps almost necessarily, lead to some big mistakes. Livio discusses how these are not always due strictly to “pushing the envelope” however, and how things such as major discoveries early in one’s career can affect what happens later. Carl Zimmer has a review here, and NPR a synopsis here.

“In science one learns not only by one’s own mistakes but by the history of the mistakes of others”.
“It is curious how often erroneous theories have had a beneficial effect for particular branches of science.”
Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance

“We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative… Our errors are surely not such awful solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”
William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Natural Philosophy

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One thought on “Brilliant Blunders

  1. Pingback: Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein: Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe | Science Book a Day

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