- 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: 163 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #551,017 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe
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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. In fact, it would be many decades before nuclear fusion would be understood well enough to determine that the age of the sun could also be billions of years and synch up with the assumed age of the earth. Kelvin based his mistake on calculable physics and, mistake though it may have been and intransigent as he certainly was, it encouraged other scientists to do significant work to refute him.
Livio makes similar work of Darwin's understanding of inheritable traits, Pauling's work on the structure of DNA, Hoyle's refutation of the Big Bang, and Einstein's cosmological constant. He structures his book well, delivering a chapter on outlining the mistake (what it was and how a great mind could make such a mistake) and then following with a chapter that examines the impact of the mistake on the development of science.
Livio also deserves credit for looking into primary sources to examine aspects of controversy about these so-called mistakes. In particular, he has a great section on the primacy debate on what is now known as Hubble's Law between Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaitre. In addition, he quite convincingly argues that Einstein never called the cosmological constant his "greatest blunder". In fact, that is a story most of us know third-hand through a not-quite-reliable source.
Because of its triumphs, many people look upon science as some kind of edifice of truth. Those involved in science, however, know that the power of science comes from its ability to advance by correcting mistakes and refining understanding. Because of that, the history of science is riddled with blind alleys and big blunders. Those things happen to be just as important to the development of science as what is currently accepted as accurate. Mr. Livio has done an excellent job of demonstrating this by pointing out the mistakes made by some of the greats. This is a book anyone interested in the history of science should read.
The book is very readable, Livio isn't afraid to delve deeply into the theories being covered. The section on Einstein's "blunder" is particularly detailed. And, by the way, you'll find an interesting discussion of whether Einstein really called the cosmological constant his "greatest blunder."
Most recent customer reviews
CITATION: Livio, M. (2014).Read more
the book is indeed well kept and accurately read, separately from the fact that Mr Mario Livio is one of the most talented authors on the subjects of...Read more