Review of 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. 352 pp. $26.
When James Watson saw the model for proteins (and the structure) of DNA proposed by Linus Pauling, the world’s greatest chemist, in 1953 he was shocked. “You could not have written a fictional novel in which Linus would have made an error like this. The minute I saw the structure, I thought ‘this is wacko.’”
We all make mistakes, of course. But Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescopic Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland and the author of The Golden Ratio, The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved, and The Accelerating Universe, reminds us, “genuinely towering scientists” make major mistakes. In Brilliant Blunders, Livio provides an informative and engaging account of the discoveries and the errors of the naturalist Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, the physicist, Linus Pauling, the British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, and the scientific luminary of luminaries, Albert Einstein. In each case, Livio attempts to identify the psychological and/or neuro-scientific causes of their blunders. He claims as well that mistakes are essential components of progress in science, acting “as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs.”
Brilliant Blunders provides fascinating details about the minds and methods of his subjects. Livio describes how Lord Kelvin determined the age of the Earth by using the science of thermodynamics to measure the transfer of heat from its interior to the surface. Fred Hoyle’s defense of “the steady state universe” against the “big bang” theory, he reveals, was based on the ingenious idea that matter was constantly being created in space and galaxies formed “at a rate that compensates precisely for the dilution caused by the cosmic expansion.” And he demonstrates that Einstein’s “cosmological constant” keeps seeping into the speculations of smart scientists.
Nonetheless, Livio does not make a convincing case for the proposition that mistakes do no harm in science because they are quickly spotted and corrected and help advance our knowledge of life, the Earth, and the universe. Acknowledging that there was nothing all that brilliant about Pauling’s blunder,” for example, Livio makes the vague claim that “Pauling’s method, way of thinking, and previous incredible success with complex protein molecules inspired and informed Watson and Crick.” Equally important, Livio does not read into the record the many, many errors that set back scientific inquiry – or sent researchers in the wrong direction. Nor does he address Thomas Kuhn’s demolition of the view of science as an objective progression toward the truth in his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Livio’s explanation of the causes of the blunders of his geniuses is also disappointing. He applies familiar concepts in psychology briefly and superficially – and expects them to stick. Darwin may have stubbornly defended pangenesis, he declares, because he was inflicted with “the illusion of confidence: a common state in which people overestimate their abilities.” Lord Kelvin’s case, he indicates, appears to fit the cognitive dissonance theory (the more committed we are to theory, the more likely we are to stick with it when faced with evidence that appears to disprove it) “like a glove.” When engineer John Perry suggested the possibility of convection in the Earth’s interior and when radioactivity appeared a decade later, Kelvin “was even less inclined to publish a concession of defeat.” And, after suggesting that Hoyle’s lack of religious belief may have contributed to his skepticism that the universe appeared all at once, Livio attributes his refusal to admit to a mistake to “denial,” which offers an individual a way to avoid reopening experiences that were thought to have been successfully closed. Being wrong about a scientific theory, Livio suggests, can be traumatic, “and we may assume that denial, in this sense, may have played a role in Hoyle’s blunder.”
The “illusion of confidence,” “cognitive dissonance,” and “denial,” it seems to me, might be applied with equal force to any or all of Livio’s five subjects. To be sure, by deploying these concepts, Livio may wish only to indicate, as he does in his conclusion, that great scientists, like the rest of us, “are not purely rational beings capable of completely turning off their passions.” Those of us who already know that all beliefs are shaped, in no small measure, by “local and temperamental biases,” however, are left at the end of Brilliant Blunders wanting more.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.