If you need another reason to eschew perfectionism and embrace failure, read Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. It's by Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute and author of the prize-winning The Golden Ratio and other popular science books.

The names of the eminent scientists Livio writes about, as well as their notable achievements, may be familiar to many of us. But what the five famous scientists of which Livio writes figured wrong isn't nearly as well known.

Take Darwin and his theory of natural selection. According to the theory of heredity of his day, which he also espoused, there was no way natural selection could have worked. It was a theory that said new traits (mutations) would be blended out within a few generations. Modern genetics resolved the problem and gave credence to Darwin's theory of evolution.

As for Einstein, here's a surprising and illuminating bit of information from the book:

More than 20 percent of Einstein's original papers contain mistakes of some sort. In several cases, even though he made mistakes along the way, the final result is still correct. This is often the hallmark of truly great theorists: They are guided by intuition more than by formalism.

Brilliant Blunders includes discussions of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe and why our minds make the mistakes they do. Cognitive dissonance is one powerful aspect of such errors. Livio includes lots of original sources and illustrations and human anecdotes to leaven the complex science. All in all, Brilliant Blunders is a terrific resource for understanding the very human process and progress of science.

  • Mario Livio has a website, as well as a blog called "A Curious Mind" that features such fascinating musings as what evolves (life, the universe as a whole) and what stays constant (the basic laws of nature).

Copyright (2013 by Susan K. Perry

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