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Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

4.1 out of 5 stars 151 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1439192368
ISBN-10: 1439192367
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Astrophysicist and award-winning author Livio (The Golden Ratio) analyzes ruinous errors of five great scientific minds in the wake of their most prominent discoveries and how those errors have not only propelled scientific breakthroughs, but provide "insights...into the operation of the human mind." Summoning Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein, Livio argues there is no progress without lessons in humility. These thinkers succumbed to moments of fear, pride, stubbornness, and doubt common to all "mere mortals"—to the benefit of elucidating the evolution of life and the universe. Two-time Nobel prize-winning chemist Pauling's flub of basic chemistry catalyzed the discoveries of Watson and Crick; Hoyle, a cosmologist who displayed "pigheaded, almost infuriating refusal" to give up his thoroughly refuted "steady state theory", energized advanced studies of how we exist in space with his controversial ideas; and Einstein, "the embodiment of genius", refused to give up on his cosmological constant, "the most famous fudge factor in the history of science." With humor and precision, Livio reminds us: "Even the most impressive minds are not flawless; they merely pave the way for the next level of understanding." (May)


“Mario Livio sets the discoveries of five great scientists who were also remarkable personalities in their social context, showing how they emerged from confusion and controversy. His archival research allows him to debunk several myths that have been given currency through less thorough biographies. You don’t need to be a scientist to be fascinated by this scholarly, insightful and beautifully written book.” (Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and author of From Here to Infinity: A Vision for the Future of Science)

“After reading Livio's account, I look on the history of science in a new way. In every century and every science, I see brilliant blunders.” (Freeman Dyson The New York Review of Books)

"Scientists make mistakes all the time, but those bumps in the road are often smoothed out in the legends that surround the greatest discoverers. . . . Thoughtful, well-researched and beautifully written, Brilliant Blunders offers a distinctive — and far more truthful — perspective on the journey to scientific discovery." (Marcia Bartusiak The Washington Post)

“Enlightening. . . . For many people, being a great scientist means being above error. . . . Livio’s book is a valuable antidote to this skewed picture. . . . Thanks to his deep curiosity, Livio turns Brilliant Blunders into a thoughtful meditation on the course of science itself." (Carl Zimmer The New York Times Book Review)

"Elegant, entertaining, and instructive." (Andrew Robinson The Lancet)

“It is said that genius is the ability to make all possible mistakes in the least amount of time. Livio’s genius is to show us just how much those mistakes have taught us.” (Adam Riess, Thomas Barber Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, Nobel Laureate in Physics 2011)

“Taking risks is part of genius, and genius is not immune to bloopers. Mario Livio's Brilliant Blunders leads us through the circumstances that surrounded famous gaffes. . . . Mr. Livio helps us see that such spectacular errors are opportunities rather than setbacks.” (Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health)

“Mario Livio wears many hats: scientist, sleuth, storyteller. In Brilliant Blunders, a delightful intellectual synthesis, he reminds us that he’s also one of the best science writers in our galaxy.” (Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of X)

“In Brilliant Blunders, Mario Livio leaves no historical detail untold, as we re-walk the error-filled pathways along which human understanding of the universe slowly emerged.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History, and author of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier)

Mr. Livio is a gifted storyteller. . . .[He] shows how science works partly by feeding on past mistakes: Once recognized, the errors sparked creativity in other scientists. An incorrect view of the world is not simply a mistake; it's a catalyst that leads to better understanding." (Samuel Arbesman The Wall Street Journal)

"At last we have a book specifically devoted to scientific mistakes. . . . For someone who wants the whole story, Livio's book is a page turner." (Donald Simanek Physics Today)

“One of the most important things that distinguishes science from religion is that in science we (eventually) are happy to change our minds. This is called learning. As Mario Livio eloquently describes in this far-reaching and thoroughly enlightening book, many famous scientific advances involved either false starts or dead ends. In my own field, Einstein is purported to have said that inserting the cosmological constant into his equations of General Relativity was his ‘biggest blunder.’ In hindsight, as we find ourselves living in a Universe whose future may be determined by this quantity, most of us would now pay our eye teeth to have made such blunder!” (Lawrence M. Krauss, Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration)

“Entertaining accounts of how five celebrated scientists went wrong. . . . An absorbing, persuasive reminder that science is not a direct march to the truth.” (Kirkus Reviews)

"Astrophysicist Livio unmasks the flaws in the work of some of our greatest scientific minds in this meditation on the winding, unpredictable path of discovery." (Anna Kuchment Scientific American)

"Livio's usual knack at making sophisticated concepts accessible has been brought to bear on his book. . . . What comes through clearly, as is one of the author's stated intentions, is that errors are part and parcel of the process and that science progresses, not always despite them, but also through them. . . . With its illustrious characters, interesting ideas and those blunders to marvel at, the book makes a fascinating read." (Marianne Freiberger Plus magazine)

"Wide ranging and entertaining, Brilliant Blunders might be picked up by readers who have been fooled into doing so by the notion of blunders, but they will certainly enjoy it for its brilliance." (Robert Schaefer New York Journal of Books)

"[Mario Livio is ] one of my favorite authors." (Dan Brown)

The blunders committed by the five geniuses profiled in this book should make us lesser beings feel better about ourselves. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who writes popular science with Asimovian accessibility, doesn’t want to bring these men down. . . . Knowledge, Livio reminds us, transcends any one individual. It is relentless; in time it overcomes all obstacles, including the shortcomings of the very people dedicated to its advancement." (Ariel Gonzalez The Miami Herald)

"You don’t have to be a science scholar to appreciate this book. . . . Brilliant Blunders shows that while scientists make mistakes, they ultimately get things right. And we’d better start paying attention." (Curt Schleier Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

"Countless scientists have made major mistakes over the centuries, but Livio wisely focuses on gaffes from just five great minds: Pauling, Darwin, Einstein, astrophysicist Fred Hoyle and William Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin. . . . Though Livio can only speculate on the reasons behind these errors, his clear and compelling writing reinforces the important contributions each of these men made to their fields. . . . Livio’s ultimate message is that blunders — even big ones — can play a role in scientific discovery." (Allison Bohac ScienceNews)

“The stories of how these blunders came about, and what happened next, are extremely well researched, and they shed a welcome, informative, entertaining and sometimes new light on science as a deeply human activity.” (Len Fisher Physics World)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 14, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439192367
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439192368
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (151 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #138,266 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 14, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Science, at its best, is a systematic and unrelenting search for understanding about reality. However, since it is conducted by human beings, the path to that understanding can take twists and turns and even the best scientists can get tripped up along the way. This book examines five of the greatest scientists of the past century and a half and how, despite their brilliance and success, they stumbled a bit. And each in his own way.

I think this is a valuable book because the author, Mario Livio, is telling serious stories about real science but keeps everything fresh, interesting, and moving along. The stories never pander to the reader or become so laden with jargon that we general readers become lost. This is a very tricky problem for a science author. How to write for the general public in ways that are inviting without being superficial. How can a real scientist provide a book that is both inviting and informative without being too heavy so that the book ends up being something only a specialist can enjoy. This author seems to be blessed with that wonderful and rare mix of scientific expertise, broad scientific and historical knowledge, and the ability to tell stories that make the reader want to keep turning the pages without even suspecting he or she is learning something quite valuable. You know, like a great cook that can make kids want to eat their vegetables.

This terrific book introduces us to many of the towering scientific figures of the past two centuries by focusing on the work and lives of five particularly important pillars of science: Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. Each triumphed in his own unique way, and each stumbled for a different reason.
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a big fan of non-fiction science books, and in particular, books about science history. This book is really very average. It lacks focus, discussing the works of various scientists, but there is little connection between the scientists chosen.

More importantly, for a book entitled "Brilliant Blunders," the book really isn't about scientific blunders. The discussion of any of these scientist's "blunders" is minimal. The mistakes get only passing mention in a much more thorough description of their general achievements

So while it was a good read, I'm a bit turned off that the title seems intentionally designed to grab the reader's attention and to make the book sound like an interesting, and possibly sensational read, when in fact, it is really just a run of the mill book chronicling the history achievements of a few select scientists.
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Mr. Livio has written very readable books on math and science in the past; however, this book on "colossal mistakes by great scientists that changed our understanding of the universe" may be the best of what he's written so far. There is a joy and verve in his writing here that is beyond what he's done before. This makes for a book that is not only interesting but also a pleasure to read.

Granted, he's chosen a particularly good topic: mistakes made by huge names in science--Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein. He handles it in an atypical way, however. Instead of using their well-known "blunders" to find a backdoor into criticism of these men as others have done in the past, Mr. Livio shows how the mistakes of great scientists often make perfect sense. In addition, he shows how these mistakes often open the door for others to make important breakthroughs.

Consider Kelvin, often the poster child in scientific circles for someone who achieves much in his youth but then becomes hardened into his positions in old age even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Kelvin believed that the age of the earth could be no more than a few million years despite the fact that geological and evolutionary data during his lifetime indicated that the earth had to be much, much older. But what people often fail to understand about Kelvin is that he based his belief on thermodynamic calculations, calculations on which he was the acknowledged expert. More subtly, those people who threw the evidence of geology and biology and newly discovered radioactivity in his face often did not understand that even if their evidence spoke about the age of the earth, no known mechanism could account for the age of the sun which Kelvin had also calculated to be only a few millions years.
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Format: Hardcover
Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) was a French astronomer and mathematician, widely viewed today as one of the greatest scientists of all time. What intrigues me most about him are his mistakes from which he and others learned valuable lessons. There is a brief reference to him in Brilliant Blunders (on Page 74) as Mario Livio discusses research by William Thomas (Lord Kelvin): To calculate the Sun's age, "he borrowed elements from theories for the formulation of the solar system proposed by the French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant." Livio's purpose in the book is to cite various "momentous blunders in a wide range of disciplines" that proved "brilliant" because they helped to advance substantially the progress of scientific knowledge. As Livio explains, "I hope to demonstrate that the road to discovery and innovation can be constructed even through the unlikely path of blunders made by Lord Kelvin as well as by Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein.

What we have in this immensely entertaining as well as informative book is a rigorous examination of various "colossal mistakes by great scientists that changed our understanding of life and the universe...As I hope to show, the analysis of these blunders forms a living body of knowledge that is not only captivating in its own right but also can guide actions in domains ranging from scientific practices to ethical behavior. The second reason is simple: The topics of life, of the Earth, and of the universe have intrigued humans -- not just scientists -- since the dawn of civilization, and have inspired tireless quests to uncover their origins and out past.
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