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Drawing on the lives of five renowned scientists, Mario Livio shows how even these geniuses made major mistakes and how their errors were an essential part of the process of achieving scientific breakthroughs.We all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. And that includes five of the greatest scientists in history—Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fr Drawing on the lives of five renowned scientists, Mario Livio shows how even these geniuses made major mistakes and how their errors were an essential part of the process of achieving scientific breakthroughs.We all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. And that includes five of the greatest scientists in history—Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. But the mistakes that these great luminaries made helped advance science. Indeed, as Mario Livio explains, science thrives on error, advancing when erroneous ideas are disproven. As a young scientist, Einstein tried to conceive of a way to describe the evolution of the universe at large, based on General Relativity—his theory of space, time, and gravity. Unfortunately he fell victim to a misguided notion of aesthetic simplicity. Fred Hoyle was an eminent astrophysicist who ridiculed an emerging theory about the origin of the universe that he dismissively called “The Big Bang.” The name stuck, but Hoyle was dead wrong in his opposition. They, along with Darwin (a blunder in his theory of Natural Selection), Kelvin (a blunder in his calculation of the age of the earth), and Pauling (a blunder in his model for the structure of the DNA molecule), were brilliant men and fascinating human beings. Their blunders were a necessary part of the scientific process. Collectively they helped to dramatically further our knowledge of the evolution of life, the Earth, and the universe.


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Drawing on the lives of five renowned scientists, Mario Livio shows how even these geniuses made major mistakes and how their errors were an essential part of the process of achieving scientific breakthroughs.We all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. And that includes five of the greatest scientists in history—Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fr Drawing on the lives of five renowned scientists, Mario Livio shows how even these geniuses made major mistakes and how their errors were an essential part of the process of achieving scientific breakthroughs.We all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. And that includes five of the greatest scientists in history—Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. But the mistakes that these great luminaries made helped advance science. Indeed, as Mario Livio explains, science thrives on error, advancing when erroneous ideas are disproven. As a young scientist, Einstein tried to conceive of a way to describe the evolution of the universe at large, based on General Relativity—his theory of space, time, and gravity. Unfortunately he fell victim to a misguided notion of aesthetic simplicity. Fred Hoyle was an eminent astrophysicist who ridiculed an emerging theory about the origin of the universe that he dismissively called “The Big Bang.” The name stuck, but Hoyle was dead wrong in his opposition. They, along with Darwin (a blunder in his theory of Natural Selection), Kelvin (a blunder in his calculation of the age of the earth), and Pauling (a blunder in his model for the structure of the DNA molecule), were brilliant men and fascinating human beings. Their blunders were a necessary part of the scientific process. Collectively they helped to dramatically further our knowledge of the evolution of life, the Earth, and the universe.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Alejandro

    Errare humanum est This is a research book commenting about "blunders" by some of the biggest minds of the two last centuries... Darwin and Kelvin ( 19th Century ) Einstein, Pauling and Hoyle ( 20th Century ) While some of them may be unknown to you, their achievements have been introduced so deep into popular culture that you may be surprised to know that one of them was the responsible to create them. However, they were human and so, not matter how brilliant they were, they were exposed to make Errare humanum est This is a research book commenting about "blunders" by some of the biggest minds of the two last centuries... Darwin and Kelvin ( 19th Century ) Einstein, Pauling and Hoyle ( 20th Century ) While some of them may be unknown to you, their achievements have been introduced so deep into popular culture that you may be surprised to know that one of them was the responsible to create them. However, they were human and so, not matter how brilliant they were, they were exposed to make blunders just like any of us. I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. (Neil Gaiman) I think that making mistakes isn't the issue here, BUT their attitudes to them. And you will realize that each of those great scientists reacted in different ways once realized about the mistakes on their works. CHARLES DARWIN It's very likely that everybody knows our good fellow, Charles Darwin, and his famous theory about evolution through natural selection. His "blunder" is highly remissible since when he postulated his theory, there weren't studies about genetics. However, when he knew about his mistakes (at least the ones already exposed while he was still alive) he did his best to do key editing on his famous book On the Origin of Species, one word, here, one sentence, there, and voilà! He covered fair enough his bases taking in account again that many genetics' sciences (if not all) wasn't developed yet at his time. A a cool trivia is that the word "evolution" isn't anywhere to be found in his famous book, On the Origin of Species. This theory is also quite polemic due the fight of God's hand on creation of man against the evolution from primates or the animal of your (natural) selection. Well, to me is easy. I am a religious person and also I am a sciences' fan. So, isn't too much to ask to find a common ground? God's hand helped to the whatever first living organism to go out from the sea and...some million years later...Pow! Bam! Kapow! The man rises! See? Easy! The preacher and the scientist shaking hands! Everybody happy! LORD KELVIN William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin, submitted himself to the not little task of calculating the age of the planet Earth (Pfff! Wasn't there anything harder to calculate?!). His calculation process was quite well done, but there was a mistake. However, his "blunder" wasn't exactly not getting the right number, but he never admitted that he was wrong even when clear evidence was exposed in front of himself. And that was a sad reaction to it. I mean, it was like when I knew about some monk in the 4th Century who was assigned to calculate the date of birth of our lord, Jesus Christ (Pfff! Really! Wasn't anything harder that you wanted me to calculate?!) and just picture a single monk, secluded in some remote monastery, in the freaking 4th Century, without access to a computer for not saying even likely not even a dang abacus, and... he just failed for mere 4 years!!! Ah???! That monk was a blasted genius!!! So, returning to our good fellow Kelvin, his real blunder wasn't the result of his calculus but his stubborn attitude never accepting that he was wrong. FRED HOYLE Peculiar fellow, our friend Fred Hoyle, since he is famous for coining the term of "Big Bang" BUT he never supported or believed on that theory!!! Odd, right? He had revised the theory of steady-state that was initially proposed by Sir James Jeans (and no, this guy didn't invent our favorite kind of pants). This theory is a poor thing so overwhemlming attacked and refuted since then, that even (All Hail!) Stephen Hawking commented that that theory was pretty much dead in the scientific sense. However, Fred Hoyle never admitted it and so, he is another sad case of scientific stubborness. LINUS PAULING Now, you have a wonderful fellow here with Linus Pauling! Did he do a blunder? Of course! That's why he is here, you silly! He was a two-times winner of the Nobel Prize (in two totally different categories!) so when one knows about that he thought that the DNA was a triple helix (Pfff! Oh, Linus! How didn't you never see that was only a double one?!), in my case I am quite magnanimous: "Go, Linus, and don't triple helix anymore!". Because he totally admitted that he was wrong and even he was totally friendly to the guys who came with the right proposal and taking what could be his third Nobel prize... See, Linus?! Three isn't your number, man! So, humility, open-mindness and chivalry were the traits that defined Linus Pauling as a wonderful blunder... in the good sense! ALBERT EINSTEIN Now, if you really never heard about our good fellow, Albert Einstein, well, scientific blunders is the least of your problems, pal! Okay, the "blunder" of Einstein was about the cosmological constant (don't worry, I didn't know what the heck was that! What? His thing wasn't relativity?!) which is the value of the energy density in vacuum space (and yes, I remained as clueless with that explanation), anyway, the key part here is that our nice fellow Einstein was such a doll and one adorable cute little thing that he was barely told about his "blunder" that he ran to correct his papers and totally accepted without a single argument that he was wrong about it. Have some balls, Albert! I am saying due that many years later when he already passed away years ago, it resulted that his theory had validity after all. So, his "blunder" after all was to accept too quickly that he was wrong. That even so, at that time seemed to be the case. Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. (Albert Einstein) So a good balance is the best way. Not being as stubborn as Kelvin or Hoyle but not being so condescending as the good of Einstein, and always it's wise to cover your bases as Darwin but above all, being a sport as Pauling. Science is a curious thing that time and trials validate or negate its laws and fundaments, even as solid ones and widely spread as thinking that Sun was orbiting around the Earth which was the center of the universe. Be open-minded but with a sprinkle of wariness, and the richness of the universe will be revealed to you, and never be afraid of making mistaques (oops!) mistakes. I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. (Michael Jordan)

  2. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    The Unreasonable Search for Reason Mario Livio’s book is about opportune mistakes in science. They are opportune in the sense that they produced a result which has changed scientific thinking either directly or indirectly. Although he doesn’t make it a central part of his argument, the cases he documents collectively undermine our illusions about science, illusions which are becoming increasingly obvious during the worldwide Covid-19 crisis. Rather than review Livio’s book in any detail, therefor The Unreasonable Search for Reason Mario Livio’s book is about opportune mistakes in science. They are opportune in the sense that they produced a result which has changed scientific thinking either directly or indirectly. Although he doesn’t make it a central part of his argument, the cases he documents collectively undermine our illusions about science, illusions which are becoming increasingly obvious during the worldwide Covid-19 crisis. Rather than review Livio’s book in any detail, therefore, I think it’s more important to give a sort of appreciation of its import for our current circumstances. Isaac Newton believed in witchcraft, astrology and alchemy. He also had a rather influential and effective theory of gravity. Pythagoras had an irrational aversion to beans, practised numerology and believed in the transmigration of souls, but also produced a geometrical theorem which is still of tremendous practical use after several millennia. Nikolai Tesla had a superstitious obsession with the number three, insisting, for example, on circling his office building three times before entering; yet he was the real genius behind most of Thomas Edison’s inventions. In short, scientists are as neurotic as the rest of us. They do things in certain ways because... we’ll just because. Like the prize-fighter or the football player performing their good luck ritual before their match, scientists perform routines which they believe enhance the chances of achieving results. These routines are influenced by a variety of factors. Some of these factors are shared by other scientists; some not. Those that are not, scientists tend to keep quiet about - until these odd, personal, eccentric, routines result in some deviation from what is expected. If an unexpected result is designated an error or mistake by a scientist’s colleagues, it is generally ignored. If it is accepted by the relevant scientific community, however, the result could well be considered a breakthrough, perhaps suggesting a new direction for research. Typically the scientific community isn’t unanimous in its judgment, at which point politics of the normal sort reigns. By ‘normal’ I mean that there is debate about what criterion of evaluation should be applied to the unexpected result. It is this criterion, quite literally one of value, which will establish whether the result is marked a mistake or a breakthrough (or perhaps the degree of each). This is normal science in the sense that it is happening continuously without fuss in laboratories, conferences and professional journals. The rest of us outside professional circles rarely get a glimpse of what’s actually happening and could generally care less about the ongoing debates. Only when some significant event occurs - like a Covid-19 crisis for example - does the debate become public and the various contrary criteria which scientists in the same profession employ about what constitutes ‘good science’ become apparent. At that point they argue, often vehemently, in the popular media as well as among themselves about what constitutes success in the scientific endeavour. The rest of us are justifiably bemused by this debate. Isn’t science a rational activity ruled by principles of reason? If we are ‘led by the science,’ as politicians keep reminding us, shouldn’t the direction we have to take be clear? Yet one professional faction calls for ‘lockdown’ and another for ‘exposure.’ And these are only the medicos. Once the economists and sociologists contribute their professional opinions, the range of recommended action is densely populated with alternatives. These disagreements are only the tip of a very large intellectual iceberg that has sunk more than a few reputation along ships. As Livio points out, the view of what constitutes science held by the great Lord Kelvin was radically different from that held by the great Einstein, which in turn was also radically different than that held by the equally great Heisenberg. That is to say, science, of any sort, doesn’t seem more rational than any other human institution. What needs to be done is not a product of scientific method. Pick a criterion - herd immunity, overall death rates, maximum capacity for hospital admissions, mortality among distinct groups like the old, ethnic minorities, the poor, infants, or the relative cost of economic slowdown versus the prevalence of illness - and the answer to the question of ‘what to do?’ becomes fairly clear. And therein lies the issue. Rationality breaks down in the debate about the criterion of rationality. No one has a routine, a calculus, an algorithm, a method for determining which criterion of value is appropriate to use. So a public scientific crisis like Covid-19 demonstrates just how essentially non-rational science is. Despite its pretensions, scientific thought is influenced and often directed by preferences, judgments, experiences, and beliefs which have no foundation in logic, law, or moral agreements. The choice of criterion to be applied to determine whether an individual scientific result or a global scientific programme is a mistake or an effective breakthrough is simply not one of reason. Science, whatever one means by that term, is an inadequate guide to action - just as claims of divine revelation are equally inadequate. This may be frustrating, but it is not entirely bad news. As Mario Livio documents, it is through Brilliant Blunders that we discover the reality of disagreement about what rationality itself means. Perhaps the reality of our shared Covid-19 experience will make each of us slightly less certain of our own inherent reasonableness. The absolute priority of the search for the criterion of reason is what this viral plague has shown us. No one has a privileged position for determining the direction of this search. What we are in together is not just the disease but also the question of how we should view it. Postscript. Here is a rather more prolix statement of my point: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n... And here is another voice crying in the wilderness: https://aeon.co/essays/a-bioethicist-... And here is another example of the unreasonableness of science: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

  3. 4 out of 5

    David

    This is an insightful book about five great scientists, their discoveries and their mistakes. Each of these scientists--Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein--made enormous contributions to science. Their discoveries were very influential on biology, chemistry and physics. However, each one made some mistakes--after all, they were all human--but their mistakes were all for different reasons, with different repercussions. Mario Livio makes an excellent investigation into the nature of each This is an insightful book about five great scientists, their discoveries and their mistakes. Each of these scientists--Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein--made enormous contributions to science. Their discoveries were very influential on biology, chemistry and physics. However, each one made some mistakes--after all, they were all human--but their mistakes were all for different reasons, with different repercussions. Mario Livio makes an excellent investigation into the nature of each of their mistakes, with some interesting conclusions. Livio does not fault any of these scientists for not having scientific understanding that was not yet available. For example, Darwin's error was not that he lacked a good understanding of genetics--Mendel's recent findings were unavailable to Darwin, as they were published in an obscure foreign journal. Instead, Darwin's error was that his theory was contradicted by the faulty state of genetics at the time. Well--his theory turned out to be correct anyway. So, was it a blunder? Livio shows that in many cases, a brilliant scientist knows what evidence to believe, and what to ignore. Livio mentions the findings of the great psychologists Tversky and Kahneman, in that "people tend to rely more on their intuitive understanding--which is based on their personal experience--than on actual data." This was certainly true for Darwin, Pauling and Einstein. Kelvin's mistake was not that his calculation of the age of the Earth was wrong by a factor of 40--his calculation was flawless, based on the physics that was known at the time. His mistake was that he maintained his belief, even as contrary evidence mounted. Livio makes a good argument that the root of this problem was the well-recognized psychological trait of cognitive dissonance: "The more committed we are to a certain opinion, the less likely we are to relinquish it, even if confronted with massive contradictory evidence." This was also Fred Hoyle's "blunder": he stuck to his theory of steady state cosmology, even in the face of lots of evidence for the so-called "big-bang". Speaking of the "big bang," Fred Hoyle invented the term during one of his BBC radio broadcasts. He said, "... These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past. It now turns out that in some respect or other all such theories are in conflict with the observational requirements." Livio mentions that contrary to popular belief, Hoyle was not using the "big bang" term in a derogatory manner. "Rather, he was simply attempting to create a mental picture for his listeners." Livio points out the irony that he coined this term and popularized it, even though he strongly disagreed with the theory. Again, Hoyle's mistake was not that he proposed the steady-state hypothesis when he did; at the time, it was a very clever explanation of the available observations. Instead, his mistake was in not admitting his mistake when overwhelming evidence contradicted his ideas. Livio has done some original historical research into the background of some of these so-called "blunders". For example, he shows that Einstein probably never said that his cosmological constant was his "biggest blunder". This is probably an urban legend, started by a Scientific American article by George Gamow. Einstein included the cosmological constant in his early papers, in order to agree with the observational evidence at the time that the known universe was in a steady state--neither contracting nor expanding. After Hubble announced his discovery that the universe was expanding, Einstein did admit to his "mistake," and removed the term from his equations. He did this largely for aesthetic reasons, as the term was no longer needed. Ironically as it turns out, it was actually the removal of the term that was a mistake, because of the 1998 discovery that the rate of inflation is accelerating. Linus Pauling's attitude toward mistakes is captured in a reminiscence of his colleague Jack Dunitz: "Jack, if you think you have a good idea, publish it! Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes do no harm in science because there are lots of smart people out there who will immediately spot a mistake and correct it. ... If it happens to be a good idea, however, and you don't publish it, science may suffer a loss." Sometimes, a scientist finds himself in the position of a maverick. He goes against the established scientific consensus; he just "knows" he is right. This was expressed in a book published in 2000 by Fred Hoyle and collaborators, with a picture of a flock of geese. The caption read, "This is our view of the conformist approach to the standard (hot big bang) cosmology. We have resisted the temptation to name some of the leading geese." Mario Livio is a well-known astrophysicist. As a scientist himself, he brings a considerable amount of insight into the scientific process. He brings some original ideas about what constitutes a scientific "mistake", and especially the psychological reasons for these mistakes. This book is especially recommended for those interested in the history of science, or in the psychology of the greatest scientists. (Full disclosure: I received this book as a review copy from the publisher, Simon & Schuster.)

  4. 5 out of 5

    HBalikov

    Livio is a fine science writer and there are parts of this book where I felt grateful for his excellent prose and insights into the lives and passions (work-related) of many famous scientists. But, you should know that this is intended as a text for use in college courses and beyond and this means that it is often dry and formalistic. Among the sections that I enjoyed were those involving the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe (“B is for Big Bang and The Same Throughout Eternity?). I Livio is a fine science writer and there are parts of this book where I felt grateful for his excellent prose and insights into the lives and passions (work-related) of many famous scientists. But, you should know that this is intended as a text for use in college courses and beyond and this means that it is often dry and formalistic. Among the sections that I enjoyed were those involving the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe (“B is for Big Bang and The Same Throughout Eternity?). I was less enthusiastic about those involving Lord Kelvin. Livio is very helpful in leading the reader through the process of creating theories, finding their limitations and then creating new improved theories is the essence of the scientific method and why science has been so successful. In these times where science is under attack and by some who don’t understand what it is about, Livio’s book comes through with clear explanations of some of the most important scientific discoveries. A valuable addition.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Max

    Five mistakes by five of the greatest minds in science: Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. Each error advanced science, the theme of the book. Livio injects original research and a unique point of view into familiar material. His style is simple and direct, the concepts accessible and the reading pleasurable. Livio expanded my understanding and provided new insights. Below are brief recaps of the five. Darwin’s blunder was putting forth natural selection Five mistakes by five of the greatest minds in science: Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. Each error advanced science, the theme of the book. Livio injects original research and a unique point of view into familiar material. His style is simple and direct, the concepts accessible and the reading pleasurable. Livio expanded my understanding and provided new insights. Below are brief recaps of the five. Darwin’s blunder was putting forth natural selection without a supporting theory of inheritance. The only accepted theory at the time was that inherited traits were blended, which would quickly mitigate any change due to natural selection. Only after Mendel would we understand that traits were inherited intact and even if hidden in the next generation would reappear again in subsequent generations. While Darwin did not accept the latency of inherited traits believing that the same traits simply reappeared due to the same forces that created them the first time, he did realize that individual traits survived without blending. He thought new traits were acquired due to environmental impact on the body. Fortunately Darwin’s misunderstanding of genetics didn’t impede his discovery of natural selection. Lord Kelvin (William Thomson), an exceptional mathematician who calculated absolute zero, blundered in his assumptions regarding the uniformity of heat convection in the earth that he used to calculate its age. Despite this error that put earth’s age at 40 – 400 million years and Kelvin’s obstinacy at being corrected, he did initiate the use of physics to answer geological questions. By creating the physics problem he brought on the challenges that led to the eventual solution. Linus Pauling, a brilliant chemist who first identified the structure of the alpha-helix, the main feature of many proteins, failed miserably with his model of DNA. His structure was not even an acid. Perhaps it was due to overconfidence, lack of attention or too many distractions such as being targeted by Joe McCarthy. Pauling’s effort however was close enough that it spurred James Watson to finish his work and produce along with Francis Crick the correct model. In Pauling’s defense, he once admonished that researchers should not wait to publish, if wrong, you just injure your pride, but if right you advance science. In retrospect, being wrong advanced science as well. Fred Hoyle made one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century; that carbon and heavier elements were made in stars. He also coined the term “big bang”; however he was an advocate of the steady state theory of the universe. While plausible given the knowledge of the 1940’s, steady state was widely discredited by the 1960’s. Hoyle became intransigent, defending his theory into the 21st century when he turned 85. Unfortunately a great mind was lost to science because it could not admit it was wrong. Einstein is often quoted as saying that inserting the cosmological constant into his equations for general relativity constituted his “biggest blunder”. According to Livio’s research, Einstein never called it his “biggest blunder”. The only sources for the quote were statements by George Gamow who was given to hyperbole and exaggerated his relationship with Einstein. Einstein himself seems to have shown ambivalence, excluding it or including it as seemed appropriate and holding that whatever future facts developed should determine its use. With the finding of an accelerating expansion of the universe, the constant became necessary and thus Livio considers the blunder to be having removed the constant. However the error pales in significance compared to the genius of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Perhaps the stories in this fascinating book are best summed up with a quote Livio shares at the end. Max Planck, whose quantum theory revolutionized physics, observed, “New scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Bettie

    Description: Drawing on the lives of five renowned scientists, Mario Livio shows how even these geniuses made major mistakes and how their errors were an essential part of the process of achieving scientific breakthroughs.We all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. And that includes five of the greatest scientists in history—Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. But the mistakes that these great luminaries made helped advance science. Indeed, Description: Drawing on the lives of five renowned scientists, Mario Livio shows how even these geniuses made major mistakes and how their errors were an essential part of the process of achieving scientific breakthroughs.We all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. And that includes five of the greatest scientists in history—Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. But the mistakes that these great luminaries made helped advance science. Indeed, as Mario Livio explains, science thrives on error, advancing when erroneous ideas are disproven. As a young scientist, Einstein tried to conceive of a way to describe the evolution of the universe at large, based on General Relativity—his theory of space, time, and gravity. Unfortunately he fell victim to a misguided notion of aesthetic simplicity. Fred Hoyle was an eminent astrophysicist who ridiculed an emerging theory about the origin of the universe that he dismissively called “The Big Bang.” The name stuck, but Hoyle was dead wrong in his opposition. They, along with Darwin (a blunder in his theory of Natural Selection), Kelvin (a blunder in his calculation of the age of the earth), and Pauling (a blunder in his model for the structure of the DNA molecule), were brilliant men and fascinating human beings. Their blunders were a necessary part of the scientific process. Collectively they helped to dramatically further our knowledge of the evolution of life, the Earth, and the universe. This went downhill, for the first third I was willingly going to give this a 3* minimum. By the end it had just become an effusive noise. Re Darwin's evolution: Relevent news article: Analysis: Antibiotic apocalypse

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ernie Cordell

    I wouldn't tell anyone _not_ to read this book. I think there is great knowledge to be gleaned there -- it just doesn't correspond to the author's thesis. The first problem is the very nature of empirical thinking and the notion of experimentation: When an experiment is conducted, it's purpose is to _gain_ knowledge -- not to confirm one's intellectual superiority over whomever might call one wrong. There are always plenty of people to do this. If the experiment shows something _other_ than you I wouldn't tell anyone _not_ to read this book. I think there is great knowledge to be gleaned there -- it just doesn't correspond to the author's thesis. The first problem is the very nature of empirical thinking and the notion of experimentation: When an experiment is conducted, it's purpose is to _gain_ knowledge -- not to confirm one's intellectual superiority over whomever might call one wrong. There are always plenty of people to do this. If the experiment shows something _other_ than you expected, you've still _gained_ knowledge -- even if it _wasn't_ what you expected. All these people were fallible -- I'm silly for just saying that, but then I've learned to live with my handicap. If we look to Einstein because we think he'll never be wrong, then we're looking to Einstein for the wrong reason. Werner Heisenberg kicked his patooty, but Werner did his homework, too. Also, Einstein just _might_ have spaced it that day. People often point to Charles Goodyear because he stumbled and spilled raw latex on a stove. First of all, when would this have happened to any of you? You'd have to be carrying around buckets of raw latex and have a hot stovetop nearby. I'm lucky nobody called me in the middle of the night to tell me that Goodyear was evil because he didn't subscribe to "green" practices. What I'm saying here is that (1) these people followed a passion no matter how crazy they were told it was; (2) when a moment of opportunity arrived, they were observant enough to see the good fortune in it; and (3) they didn't just _make_ errors, they _learned_ from those errors rather than being discouraged by them. I know plenty of people who would have said, "This hobby is just too messy!" in Goodyear's position -- and they would have found something else to do with their time. Who made the mistake, then? Maybe this author covered that end of the subject, but in every discussion I've ever heard of this book, the readers completely misunderstood these points. Maybe there'll be another edition -- maybe people will ignore me more often -- but hopefully the author and/or I will learn from these eventualities. As a final note, though, I'd like to point out that I started my review by saying that I'd not discourage anyone from reading this book. I'd just suggest that you read my review first -- and continue to appreciate these important historical figures as people -- as the persons who they were, persons who overcame their human limitations and were recognized for it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nitya Iyer

    Once, after my extremely tech-savvy engineer husband had struggled to trouble-shoot our sound system for about an hour, I wandered over and pointed out an unplugged wire that was the source of the problem. The man is a genius with electronics. Almost every machine in our house is wirelessly connected and operated through another instrument in ways I only imagined could be done in futuristic sci-fi shows. But his vision is sometimes clouded by his focus on his specialty, which means that an uninfo Once, after my extremely tech-savvy engineer husband had struggled to trouble-shoot our sound system for about an hour, I wandered over and pointed out an unplugged wire that was the source of the problem. The man is a genius with electronics. Almost every machine in our house is wirelessly connected and operated through another instrument in ways I only imagined could be done in futuristic sci-fi shows. But his vision is sometimes clouded by his focus on his specialty, which means that an uninformed mind like mine is more likely to catch sight of simple issues that are causing problems. This book is about that tunnel-vision. It profiles a few great minds who were so devoted to their fields and theories that they were unable to see the flaws that marred them. For some of them, it was simply because technology hadn't reached where it needed to be for the theory to be proved, whereas for others it was simply starting from a faulty base that kept them from seeing the truth. But this book isn't about knocking the geniuses from their pedestals. Their work still forms the basis of much of the science we use today, even if they were not able to see its full potential when they were formulating their theories. Instead, in a way, it seems that this book is about giving others the hope that even without proof and confirmation, a great mind can stumble into brilliant knowledge. I only wish the author had considered his audience more clearly when writing the book. I imagine that for a student of the sciences, the book's explanations would read as too simplistic and watered-down, whereas to someone more interested in history, like me, the explanations of the science seemed to drag on endlessly and rather unnecessarily for my understanding of his thesis.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Katherine Hunter

    I can't recall what I originally read or heard that made me want to read this book, so by the time I started on it I was going off of the title:"Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe." Based on this title I thought that the 'mistakes' were the things that changed our understanding of Life and the Universe - a la Goodyear, latex and rubber and the process of vulcanization is born. No, that's not I can't recall what I originally read or heard that made me want to read this book, so by the time I started on it I was going off of the title:"Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe." Based on this title I thought that the 'mistakes' were the things that changed our understanding of Life and the Universe - a la Goodyear, latex and rubber and the process of vulcanization is born. No, that's not it at all. The word 'that' should be replaced by 'who.' The Great Scientists changed our understand, not these 'mistakes.' Darwin's Theory of Evolution isn't changed by his 'blunder', neither is Einstein's theory of special or general relativity. Kelvin, Pauling and Hoyle theories were wrong and consequently didn't change our understanding of anything. Now I can argue that I could have avoided my annoyance with this detail if I had read the book jacket, except, this is a work of non-fiction. At the very least shouldn't the title accurately reflect the contents? Moving on from that I wonder where was the editor? Was there an editor? This is the third or fourth book I've read in the last couple of years that I have wondered about editing. Talk about burying the lead. On the part on Kelvin I read a 22 page chapter before the 'mistake' was elucidated; it was the age of the earth. But wait, 5 pages into the next chapter you find out his 'mistake' wasn't the age he calculated but was the assumptions on which he based his calculations. Okay, in a mystery novel you don't find what's going on until the end. In a non-fiction biography revelations can occur anywhere in the book. But, in a non-fiction 'science' book I don't need any mystery. What is it you want to tell me about and then tell me. If the author was hoping to create suspense or build interest it totally failed with me. I also failed to appreciate the extensive history given. How relevant to the subject is the fact that Hoyle's father sold cloth and his mother played the piano for silent films? Maybe it's somewhat interesting but is that what the book is about? Where's the editor? The assumptions made on the background that the reader brings to each subject varies wildly. The first paragraph of the part about Pauling ends with Pauling revealing the stick-and-ball model of the alpha-helix, "the main structural feature of many proteins." Oh really? Let me go back and figure out what that is, I'm sure I knew at one time but 30 years removed from the classroom and not a biologist maybe a bit of a refresher is in order. On the other hand you get pages on the periodic table and the history of matter. Seriously, pages on what makes an atom and nothing on the alpha-helix? Where's the editor? I had other issues with the book. It often read like how could someone have made this error? For example, the author states that Pauling was aware of Chargaff's work which showed the number of adenine molecules equaled the number of thymine molecules and guanine equaled cytosine in the makeup of DNA. This information was published in 1950, Pauling's 'mistake' was published in 1953. Nothing is mentioned about Watson and Crick in any way depending upon this information and I was left with the impression that Pauling was an idiot for forgetting it, while apparently Watson and Crick never knew about it. It seemed to me a case of 20/20 hindsight where the author notes how obvious and useful this work of Chargaff's was and how could Pauling have ignored it's importance. Well in the 3 years between Chargaff's publication and Pauling, no one else recognized it's importance or if they did, they didn't make any startling revelations from it. But my biggest complaint about the book is it's tone. It left me with the impression that these highly intelligent people should never have made these mistakes in the first place and that they were either stubborn, or simply didn't think things through very carefully. And I guess that I feel it doesn't celebrate at all the scientific process where ideas are put forth, discussed, argued over, refined and do it again and again and knowledge advances. Maybe that was what the author hoped to achieve, but if so, it didn't come across that way to me.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Artiom Karsiuk

    My not so brilliant blunder this month is reading that book. After spending years of referring to myself as a "nerd", I actually started believing that I am. Artiom, you goddamn idiot... You are not. And stop referring to yourself in third person - it's annoying. That's a common misconception nowadays: people wear thick black glasses, even though they have perfect 20/20 vision; spend hours dressing to look like they don't care how they look; read obscure books and listen to vintage vinyl - they t My not so brilliant blunder this month is reading that book. After spending years of referring to myself as a "nerd", I actually started believing that I am. Artiom, you goddamn idiot... You are not. And stop referring to yourself in third person - it's annoying. That's a common misconception nowadays: people wear thick black glasses, even though they have perfect 20/20 vision; spend hours dressing to look like they don't care how they look; read obscure books and listen to vintage vinyl - they think that they are nerds, because "nerds are the new sexy". More often than not, they turn out to be nothing more than pretentious hipsters. I'm even worse - I don't have the fashion sense to dress like a trendy hipster, but I also lack the natural curiosity and intelligence of a real nerd to have enjoyed this... scientific detective novel?.. The book researches [in excruciating detail] the mistakes made by some of the greatest minds of the past two centuries. But the mistakes were not as exciting as one hoped they'd be. I was looking forward to something along the lines of "Professor X.Y. believed the Earth to be cubic and Doctor A.B. thought that rain was the sky crying". Nope. It went something like "Darwin's theory clashed with genetics because [insert my biology teacher screaming at me here] and Einstein's sin was the cosmological constant because obviously *Snoar sound* ZzzzzZzzzz...*" So this was some pretty textbook scientific stuff here. And it read as dry as a school textbook. The pages seemed to stretch into boring infinity - I was reading this book like a child acts on a road trip with his parents, going "Are we there yet?" every several pages. To his credit, the author obviously did his best to put everything into as simple terms as he found possible, but even the phrasing that [I'm sure] he considers primitive can shut down my brain. In all fairness, if you enjoyed biology, physics and chemistry classes back in high school, you will find this book fascinating. Otherwise, you're better off watching paint dry or grass grow.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Hunt

    An author setting out to write a book of this kind can expect to either brilliantly synthesize diverse topics in an unexpected way or produce a grab bag of trivia equal only to the sum of its parts. Brilliant Blunders, while interesting enough, fits the latter description. It's a book that isn't quite sure what it wants to be. Is it a history? A pop-sci account of five rather disparate theories? A pop-psy attempt to cut great thinkers down to size by analyzing the sources of what are, in two out An author setting out to write a book of this kind can expect to either brilliantly synthesize diverse topics in an unexpected way or produce a grab bag of trivia equal only to the sum of its parts. Brilliant Blunders, while interesting enough, fits the latter description. It's a book that isn't quite sure what it wants to be. Is it a history? A pop-sci account of five rather disparate theories? A pop-psy attempt to cut great thinkers down to size by analyzing the sources of what are, in two out of five cases, not even genuine errors on their part? (Darwin, Livio argues, blundered by failing to take into account the blending theory of heredity which prevailed prior to the work of Mendel. This is essentially the same as arguing that Newton blundered by failing to take into account Descartes's theory of vortices. Yes, Darwin did genuinely go awry in promoting pangenesis, but this error is not Livio's focus.) Moreover, Livio's expectations of the scientific competence of his readers fluctuate wildly - he spends pages and chapters explaining what atoms are and how evolution works, while elsewhere assuming nontrivial familiarity with thermodynamics and astronomy. This struck me as odd. Overall, though, this was a pleasant read that taught me a few new things. The bits about the history of cosmology were particularly interesting to this physics major/researcher. And I'm a fan of any book that does its part in carrying out the thankless, endless task of correcting misconceptions about evolution.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Prashanthini Mande

    The biggest achievement of Mario Livio in this book is that he erased the image of a typical scientist people have in mind. Scientists are fiercely competitive, egotistic, very opinionated and gutsy people. No, they are not shabby suit-wearing introverts surrounded by conical flasks. Textbooks need to be written this way to get students to like science. Read the full review on my blog! The biggest achievement of Mario Livio in this book is that he erased the image of a typical scientist people have in mind. Scientists are fiercely competitive, egotistic, very opinionated and gutsy people. No, they are not shabby suit-wearing introverts surrounded by conical flasks. Textbooks need to be written this way to get students to like science. Read the full review on my blog!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Claudia

    As much as I loved his other works (Is God a Mathematician? and The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry), this one was really hard to digest. It has lots of details behind the work which led to some of the great scientific discoveries ever, or better said the work which led to some great blunders, which led to those discoveries... It is very thoroughly documented, with numerous fragments from these particular scientists correspondence, whi As much as I loved his other works (Is God a Mathematician? and The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry), this one was really hard to digest. It has lots of details behind the work which led to some of the great scientific discoveries ever, or better said the work which led to some great blunders, which led to those discoveries... It is very thoroughly documented, with numerous fragments from these particular scientists correspondence, which include: "...the celebrated naturalist Charles Darwin; the physicist Lord Kelvin (after whom a temperature scale is named); Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists in history; the famous English astrophysicist and cosmologist Fred Hoyle; and Albert Einstein, who needs no introduction." And as the author presents: "As we shall see, blunders are not born equal, and the blunders of the five scientists on my list are rather different in nature. Darwin’s blunder was in not realizing the full implications of a particular hypothesis. Kelvin blundered by ignoring unforeseen possibilities. Pauling’s blunder was the result of overconfidence bred by previous success. Hoyle erred in his obstinate advocacy of dissent from mainstream science. Einstein failed because of a misguided sense of what constitutes aesthetic simplicity. The main point, however, is that along the way, we shall discover that blunders are not only inevitable but also an essential part of progress in science." Interesting reading, mainly because the reader catches a glimpse of the titanic work behind the final result which appears to the public. But recommended only to those who are more than familiar with scientific language.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Joyita

    In my opinion, this book is largely mistitled. My review expresses my chagrin over this unifying element of "blunder." So, at the outset, I would like to clarify, while I have reservations about the title and the crux, this is a splendid compilation - extremely well-researched and beautifully written. (Hence the 5 stars too.) It tells some great stories revolving around five scientific luminaries. They were all "brilliant" without a doubt. But not so sure about the "blunder" component. Darwin and In my opinion, this book is largely mistitled. My review expresses my chagrin over this unifying element of "blunder." So, at the outset, I would like to clarify, while I have reservations about the title and the crux, this is a splendid compilation - extremely well-researched and beautifully written. (Hence the 5 stars too.) It tells some great stories revolving around five scientific luminaries. They were all "brilliant" without a doubt. But not so sure about the "blunder" component. Darwin and Einstein had gaps in their theories, which they were aware of. On some points, their intuition turned out correct, while on others it did not. In Darwin's case, he got the framework of natural selection correct despite the fact that the then prevalent theory of inheritance based on *continuous blending of traits* (in place of *discrete combinations of genes*, as is the case) would not allow for uncommon traits to survive several generations. His later efforts to tie it all together (including pangenesis) were woefully amiss. In a similar vein, Einstein used his intuition to introduce the cosmological constant into general relativity to account for the static state of the universe, a quantity he dropped once it became known that the universe is expanding. The dropping of the constant is considered his blunder since a similar term was added back in 1998 to account for the _accelerated_ expansion of the universe. In Lord Kelvin's case, it was not a single blunder but more a matter of attitude. In spite of his substantial contributions, he was stubborn in his conviction about his flawed estimates of the age of the earth, was dubious about radioactivity, and came to be viewed as an obstructionist to modern physics. Linus Pauling, who came up with the ingenious alpha helix structure for proteins, when it came to DNA, merely dabbled and came up with a model that was completely off. It is quite possible, he would have won the race if he were to put his mind to it, but he was clearly interested in other problems (at least that's my summary of that section). Sure that would have been great for his already illustrious career. But a scientific blunder? Probably not! Fred Hoyle, it appears, loved being a dissident all his life. He was a key player in the development of theories for stellar nucleosynthesis of elements heavier than helium. But in spite of his brilliance, he stubbornly held on to his steady state theory and opposed the big bang theory ignoring all the evidence. Once again an attitude issue. Scientists are explorers treading across uncharted territories. They are bound to stumble. The path of scientific research is rife with obstacles. More often than not mistakes are but stepping stones to new paths. The alleged blunders are just the way of science. So the efforts to single out a blunder for each scientist seem somewhat contrived. The title has got to be a marketing ploy. This is a fabulous book based on a faulty premise. Mario Livio's brilliant blunder?

  15. 4 out of 5

    Gary Beauregard Bottomley

    The author writes in a straightforward manner and explains the science in a highly entertaining manner. If I ever sit next to somebody in a waffle house who starts talking about his life stories, I can easily pivot into one of the five stories splendidly presented in this book. The writer was that good at telling the stories about the blunders, and having listened to it I can probably relate the whole book and it's major points without missing a beat. That tells me the book was well presented. Th The author writes in a straightforward manner and explains the science in a highly entertaining manner. If I ever sit next to somebody in a waffle house who starts talking about his life stories, I can easily pivot into one of the five stories splendidly presented in this book. The writer was that good at telling the stories about the blunders, and having listened to it I can probably relate the whole book and it's major points without missing a beat. That tells me the book was well presented. The narrator made the book better than the written book. I found some of his voices a real hoot, particularly Darwin and Einstein. I would definitely recommend the audible version versus the written form of this book. For me, this book was a template for having worked in the real world surrounded around very smart people who would fall into the blunders that are illustrated by these five stories. I don't think the author realized how relevant the stories could be for most working stiffs and the kind of people we often have to work with. Instead of picking Einstein's blunder as the cosmological constant, he should have picked Einstein's failure to accept quantum mechanics after having co-discovered it and wasting his time on the GUT (grand unified theorem) outside of the context of quantum physics. I know why he picked the cosmological constant. It's a funner story to relate and is more relevant today because of the mystery of Dark Energy, and the word blunder is not usually associated with that for Einstein and the cosmological constant is. Overall, the stories are well presented, and it was narrated much better than it was written, but the author missed a great opportunity to make a better book about the foibles of life in general.

  16. 4 out of 5

    BetseaK

    There is much more to this book than the title suggests. Through an unusual, thorough and highly enjoyable analysis of the so-called blunders of Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle and Albert Einstein, it gives wonderful insights into how the scientific research in the respective fields advanced, which is beautifully summarized by Pauling, who had once told to a colleague of his (Jack Dunitz): "Jack, if you think you have a good idea, publish it! Don’t be afr There is much more to this book than the title suggests. Through an unusual, thorough and highly enjoyable analysis of the so-called blunders of Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle and Albert Einstein, it gives wonderful insights into how the scientific research in the respective fields advanced, which is beautifully summarized by Pauling, who had once told to a colleague of his (Jack Dunitz): "Jack, if you think you have a good idea, publish it! Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes do no harm in science because there are lots of smart people out there who will immediately spot a mistake and correct it. You can only make a fool of yourself and that does no harm, except to your pride. If it happens to be a good idea, however, and you don’t publish it, science may suffer a loss." I found the writing style very friendly, captivating and entertaining. However, I must warn you that the explanations of advanced concepts require full concentration, and even then you'll find them a bit difficult to understand unless you are an expert in respective fields. Yet, this piece of work is so extraordinarily well-researched, educational, informative and, above all, stimulating. Overall, a truly pleasurable read. Those with any scientific curiosity will love this book.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    I picked up this book after finishing one by Bill Bryson and this is certainly a let down compared to that. The writer tries to be breezy but ends up being tedious. You have to roll your eyes at some sentences. ("Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised, given the rather questionable record of Pliny the Elder: Many of his scientific claims turned out to be false!") The writer also has a propensity for (irrelevant) tangents and a penchant for stating the obvious ("Even in terms of the properties that I picked up this book after finishing one by Bill Bryson and this is certainly a let down compared to that. The writer tries to be breezy but ends up being tedious. You have to roll your eyes at some sentences. ("Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised, given the rather questionable record of Pliny the Elder: Many of his scientific claims turned out to be false!") The writer also has a propensity for (irrelevant) tangents and a penchant for stating the obvious ("Even in terms of the properties that are easiest to discern, organisms on Earth differ in size, shape, habitat, food, and capabilities.") The book has problems with content as well as style. For instance, Darwin's "blunder" was that his theory of natural selection was not compatible with the prevailing theory of how hereditary traits were passed down (which Darwin had misgivings about anyway). Given that Darwin's theory was right and the other wrong, this hardly feels like a mistake. Rather than describing mistakes that led to breakthroughs (as the book purports to do), this just feels like nitpicking. Obviously scientists make mistakes; that is the nature of experimentation. I'm not sure what the point here is in pointing them out.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Karl-O

    Freeman Dyson reviews the book in NYBooks: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archi... The decision did not come quickly. It took the experimenters fifteen years to build a new machine and use it to search for the W-particle. But the decision, when it came, was final. Large numbers of W-particles were seen, with the properties predicted by Weinberg and Salam. With hindsight I could see several reasons why my stability argument would not apply to W-particles. W-particles are too massive and too short- Freeman Dyson reviews the book in NYBooks: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archi... The decision did not come quickly. It took the experimenters fifteen years to build a new machine and use it to search for the W-particle. But the decision, when it came, was final. Large numbers of W-particles were seen, with the properties predicted by Weinberg and Salam. With hindsight I could see several reasons why my stability argument would not apply to W-particles. W-particles are too massive and too short-lived to be a constituent of anything that resembles ordinary matter. I quickly forgot my disappointment and shared the joy of Weinberg and Salam in their well-deserved triumph. As my mother taught me long ago, the key to enjoyment of any sport is to be a good loser. In Livio’s list of brilliant blunderers, Darwin and Einstein were good losers, Kelvin and Pauling were not so good, and Hoyle was the worst. The greatest scientists are the best losers. That is one of the reasons why we love the game. As Einstein said, God is sophisticated but not malicious. Nature never loses, and she plays fair.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Deedee

    I heard the author talk on The Daily Show, and he was interesting and amusing, so I checked the book out from the library and started reading it. I put down the book after three chapters. His written style was stilted. I also realized that I didn't want to spend alot of time reading about mistaken Victorian views of how the world works. I heard the author talk on The Daily Show, and he was interesting and amusing, so I checked the book out from the library and started reading it. I put down the book after three chapters. His written style was stilted. I also realized that I didn't want to spend alot of time reading about mistaken Victorian views of how the world works.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Book

    Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio “Brilliant Blunders” provides the interesting accounts of blunders from five of the greatest scientists ever (Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein) and how that led to future understanding. Astrophysicist and award-winning author Mario Livio dissects some of these blunders but also exposes historical myths Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio “Brilliant Blunders” provides the interesting accounts of blunders from five of the greatest scientists ever (Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein) and how that led to future understanding. Astrophysicist and award-winning author Mario Livio dissects some of these blunders but also exposes historical myths. This curious 354-page book includes the following eleven chapters: 1. Mistakes and Blunders, 2. The Origin, 3. Yea, All Which It Inherit, Shall Dissolve, 4. How Old Is the Earth?, 5. Certainty Generally Is Illusion, 6. Interpreter of Life, 7. Whose DNA Is It Anyway?, 8. B for Big Bang, 9. The Same Throughout Eternity?, 10. The “Biggest Blunder”, and 11. Out of Empty Space. Positives: 1. A well-written, accessible and well-researched book. 2. An interesting topic, major scientific blunders. “The focus of this book, however, is not on such mistakes, no matter how grave they may be: it is on major scientific blunders. By “scientific blunders,” I mean particularly serious conceptual errors that could potentially jeopardize entire theories and game plans, or could, in principle at least, hold back the progress of science.” 3. Each chapter begins with a chapter-appropriate quote. 4. Laypersons will be relieved to know that Livio explains via narrative and not by esoteric math. 5. A good selection of blunders. “Darwin’s blunder was in not realizing the full implications of a particular hypothesis. Kelvin blundered by ignoring unforeseen possibilities. Pauling’s blunder was the result of overconfidence bred by previous success. Hoyle erred in his obstinate advocacy of dissent from mainstream science. Einstein failed because of a misguided sense of what constitutes aesthetic simplicity.” 6. Interesting facts abound in this book. “Generally, estimates range from 5 million to about 100 million different species, although a figure of 5 to 10 million is considered probable. (The most recent study predicts about 8.7 million.)” 7. The grand theory of evolution and the fascinating ideas of Darwin. “Only in a later book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, which was published about a dozen years after The Origin, did Darwin decide to make it clear that he believed that his ideas on evolution should also apply to humans. He was actually much more specific than that, concluding that humans were the natural descendants of apelike creatures that probably lived in trees in the “Old World” (Africa).” 8. Find out specifically where Darwin failed. Teaser. 9. Kelvin’s blunder analyzed. “Kelvin’s blunder was in not realizing that the latitude allowed by the existing observations could introduce a much larger uncertainty into his estimated age than he was willing to acknowledge.” 10. Pauling’s grand achievement. “By September 1951, the account of Pauling’s scientific achievement had made it even into the pages of Life magazine, where a photograph of a grinning Pauling pointing to his alpha-helix model was accompanied by the headline “Chemists Solve a Great Mystery: Protein Structure Is Determined.” The Life article was but a brief summary, in lay terms, of what had been a truly miraculous year in Pauling’s long career. Suffice it to note that the May 1951 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences contained no fewer than seven papers by Pauling and his collaborator, chemist Robert Corey, on the topic of the structure of proteins ranging from collagen (the most abundant protein in mammals) to the shafts of feathers. This publication marked the culmination of fifteen years of trailblazing research by Pauling.” 11. A fascinating look at how politics impacted science. “In the then-prevailing mood, given Pauling’s many pacifist speeches, his activism against nuclear weapons, and his declaration that “the world now stands at a branch in the road, leading to a glorious future for all humanity or to the complete destruction of civilization,” it was perhaps not entirely shocking that Shipley would surmise that “there is good reason to believe that Dr. Pauling is a Communist.” 12. Pauling’s blunder. “Watson did not conclude that Pauling’s DNA model was wrong just because it had three strands. Pauling’s nucleic acid molecule was simply not an acid at all. That is, it could not release positively charged hydrogen atoms when dissolved in water, the very definition of an acid.” 13. Hoyle’s contributions to science. “The result of the ensuing calculation was an epoch-making paper published in 1946, in which Hoyle delineated the framework of a theory for the formation of the elements from carbon and higher in stellar interiors. The idea was mind boggling: Carbon, oxygen, and iron did not always exist (in the sense of having been formed in the big bang). Rather, these atoms, all of which are essential for life, were forged inside the nuclear furnaces of stars. Think about this for a moment: The individual atoms that currently form the two strands of our DNA may have originated billions of years ago in the cores of different stars. Our entire solar system was assembled some 4.5 billion years ago from a mixture of ingredients cooked inside previous generations of stars.” 14. The impact of the concept of an expanding universe. “The discovery of the expanding universe is not only the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century, it plays such a crucial role both in Hoyle’s blunder and Einstein’s that it would be instructive to take a short detour to review the history of this breakthrough. This story is especially pertinent, since a new, very intriguing twist in the chronicle of events created a huge buzz in the astronomical and history of science communities in 2011.” 15. A fascinating look at astronomy. “The discovery of extremely active galaxies, in which the accretion of mass onto central, supermassive black holes releases sufficient radiation to outshine the entire galaxy, cemented the evidence against a steady state universe. These objects, known as quasars, were luminous enough to be observed by optical telescopes. The observations allowed astronomers to use Hubble’s law to determine the distance to these sources, and to show convincingly that quasars were indeed more common in the past than at present. There was no escape from the conclusion that the universe was evolving and that it had been denser in the past.” 16. Gravity defined. “Rather, mass and energy warp space-time in the same way that a person standing on a trampoline causes it to sag. Einstein defined gravity as the curvature of space-time.” 17. So did Einstein ever actually use the term “the biggest blunder”? Find out. 18. Key numbers. “There is one particular quantity in the solar system that has been crucial for our existence: the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The Earth is in the Sun’s habitable zone—the narrow circumstellar band that allows for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface. At much closer distances, water evaporates, and at much larger ones, it freezes.” Negatives: 1. Verbose, could have eliminated 10-20% and not miss a beat. 2. Are they really blunders? Or was this just science progressing along when evidence clears the fog. 3. Few supplemental materials to speak of. Could have added timelines, graphs, charts to complement the narrative. 4. Will test the patience of laypersons. I fear this book’s appeal is limited. In summary, I liked buy I can’t say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Research is top notch, the science is sound but the delivery was less than stellar. I enjoyed the science and the topic, science-minded readers will enjoy but I fear this book has a limited audience. Interesting book should have been better. 3.5 stars. Further recommendations: “The Accelerating Universe”, “Is God a Mathematician?”, “Why? What Makes Us Curious” and “The Golden Ratio” by Mario Livio, “Why Does E=mc2?” and “Wonders of the Universe” by Brian Cox, “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll, “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan, “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking, “A Universe from Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss, “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA” by Brenda Maddox, and “Origins” by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Darren

    What a delightful read! Many have read about some of these "blunders" (for example Einstein's "biggest blunder", the Cosmological Constant) but not everyone is aware of the full context of the mistakes that were indeed quite "brilliant". I thoroughly enjoyed learning the deep science behind these educated assumptions made by these top scientists: Einstein, Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling and Fred Hoyle. Charles Darwin made assumptions about heredity resulting from "blended traits"; whe What a delightful read! Many have read about some of these "blunders" (for example Einstein's "biggest blunder", the Cosmological Constant) but not everyone is aware of the full context of the mistakes that were indeed quite "brilliant". I thoroughly enjoyed learning the deep science behind these educated assumptions made by these top scientists: Einstein, Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling and Fred Hoyle. Charles Darwin made assumptions about heredity resulting from "blended traits"; when he presented his theory of evolution in 1859, he built a foundation for all of modern biology. Crucial to his theory was the fact that animals and plants inherited traits from their ancestors. Natural selection favored some traits over others, giving rise to long-term change. But Darwin didn’t know how heredity worked. He devoted a lot of time to developing ideas that, in hindsight, seem daft. “Darwin had been educated according to the then widely held belief that the characteristics of the two parents become physically blended in their offspring,” Livio writes, “as in the mixing of paints.” By this logic, each ancestor’s genetic contribution would be halved in each generation. This idea wasn’t just wrong. It undermined Darwin’s own theory of evolution. If our traits are just a result of blended particles, it shouldn’t be possible for natural selection to change traits over the generations. But try as he might, Darwin couldn’t figure out a better explanation. Yet right around the time that Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” the Czech monk Gregor Mendel was discovering genetics. Crossing pea plants in his garden, he got a glimpse at how heredity actually does work. Darwin apparently never became aware of Mendel’s work, nor did he discover Mendel’s results for himself. Linus Pauling almost beat Watson and Crick to the discovery of DNA's molecular structure (except Pauling's design was a triple helix which prevented the molecule from being a nucleic acid - apparently this is basic chemistry that he completely overlooked); In the early 1950s, Francis Crick and James Watson worked out the double-helix structure of DNA. They worked quickly, because they knew that the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Linus Pauling was trying to solve the puzzle as well. Pauling came very close, but stumbled just as Watson and Crick were making their breakthrough. He got stuck on the idea that DNA forms three intertwined spirals, rather than two, and worse, he made an elementary error in the chemistry — his nucleic acid molecule was actually not an acid. Shortly after Crick and Watson published their discoveries in 1953, Pauling paid them a visit at Cambridge and examined their model of DNA. He acknowledged that they were right and he was wrong, and soon afterward he made the same declaration in public. Lord Kelvin believed the Earth was only millions of years old; Kelvin believed that life had been designed, and he investigated the age of the Earth in part to rebut Darwin’s theory of natural selection. If Darwin’s theories were right, then the Earth must be very old, but geologists had no way to precisely measure the planet’s age. Kelvin had the brilliant insight that the temperature of rocks might hold the answer. The Earth, Kelvin rightly reasoned, had started out as a ball of molten rock. It took a straightforward mathematical exercise to calculate how long it had taken for the Earth to cool to its current temperature. And when Kelvin did the math, he concluded that the Earth was fairly young, roughly 100 million years (we now know it to be about 4.567 billion years old). He carried out similar calculations to work out the comparable age of the Sun. If the Sun had indeed formed billions of years ago, Kelvin believed it would have burned out long ago. Kelvin was wrong for two reasons. As a former student of his pointed out, Kelvin assumed that the Earth’s interior was fixed and transports heat at the same rate everywhere. In fact, it roils like boiling water, transporting heat to the surface. The other reason for Kelvin’s error was quantum physics. Radioactivity helps keep the Earth warm, and nuclear fusion has allowed the Sun to burn for 4.567 billion years. Kelvin’s critics brought both these counterarguments to his attention, but he seems to have viewed them with contemptuous indifference. British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle coined the term "Big Bang" as a derogatory term to ridicule the concept (but the term stuck after thousands of other suggestions were rejected) and was the first to propose stellar nuclear-synthesis. Yet he held fast to the "steady State theory" of the Universe. He postulated that nuclear fusion doesn't just power stars, it also creates new elements like carbon and iron. He made this tremendous discovery in the 1940s and ’50s. Unfortunately, Hoyle might be better known for promoting a flawed theory about the origin of the universe: He was convinced that the universe was in a continual state of creation. As evidence for the Big Bang mounted, he became an increasingly embarrassing crank. Livio chooses Einstein as the fifth member of his blundering quintet. Einstein was puzzled as to why the universe didn't cave in on itself. Empty space, he suggested, contained a mysterious energy pushing outward, resisting the universe’s inward collapse. After he published this idea — what came to be known as the cosmological constant — he regretted it. He said it didn't emerge naturally from his equations; he’d tacked it on like a cheap piece of plywood over a hole in a roof. Einstein eventually denounced the cosmological constant. And that, it turns out, was his big mistake. In the 1990s, physicists discovered dark energy, something very similar to that mythical force. Livio brings the care of a historian to his nimble narratives, avoiding heroic clichés. He’s less adept at explaining why these great scientists made their mistakes, too often trotting out pop psychology to demonstrate why people stubbornly cling to ideas even when they see evidence to the contrary. The psychology of bad science is a fascinating topic, but it requires a broader look at how the entire scientific community operates. Five scientists — no matter how great — cannot shoulder that load.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Alger Smythe-Hopkins

    I am in a love-hate relationship with this book. Livio is a happy and knowledgeable man who is obviously comfortable with the history of science (in his particular field of astrophysics anyway), and he really thinks he has a story to tell. The problem is that he has blundered badly in tying all of his narratives together as a history of blunders. Of all these stories, only the case of Linus Pauling forgetting his basic chemistry when committing to a three-strand, non-acid structure for DNA actua I am in a love-hate relationship with this book. Livio is a happy and knowledgeable man who is obviously comfortable with the history of science (in his particular field of astrophysics anyway), and he really thinks he has a story to tell. The problem is that he has blundered badly in tying all of his narratives together as a history of blunders. Of all these stories, only the case of Linus Pauling forgetting his basic chemistry when committing to a three-strand, non-acid structure for DNA actually counts as a blunder. The other case histories are simply people operating outside of their area of knowledge (as in the case of Darwin not having a firm grasp of maths) or continuing to defend a theory after the scientific consensus has turned against them (Hoyle and his theory of a steady state universe). The reason I am so peeved at this treatment is that it has at its basis two false premises: The first being scientists operating outside the consensus view are wrong (Bad Lord Kelvin!! Bad Hoyle!!!), which kind of ignores that the reason these men were such giants in their respective fields was that they proposed and then defended correct theories outside the mainstream consensus. The second being that scientists always need to be right about everything (Bad Pauling!! Bad Einstein!!!) which is so absurd an idea that I am kind of ashamed of Livio. Then there is the absurd premise that their being wrong should make any difference in what we think of these people, as if his inability to immediately and comprehensively refute Lord Kelvin diminishes or humanizes Darwin's accomplishments in any way. Neither should Lord Kelvin be diminished for being on the wrong side of the argument over the age of the earth. He was right and influential on so many other fronts that he remains a remarkable thinker, and at the very worst his stubborn adherence to the convection theory brought about a revolution in geo-science sparked by efforts to disprove his convection theory. And there is the real issue I have with this book; Livio fails to draw any lessons from these stories. The subtitle is obviously a publisher's addition to appeal to the pop-sci crowd who seem to have a bottomless appetite for books entitled The Thing that changed Everything, and usually not adhering to that formula is what wins me over to a pop-sci book. But in this case I really think that the book would have been helped hugely if Livio HAD tried to explain the impact of any of these "blunders" in a scope larger than the immediate and personal. Really, I couldn't figure out what Livio's purpose was in this book at all. Still it was a fun and easy read. So Love-Hate.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Yohan

    [spoilers] the amount of research and prep work done regarding the scientists and their work was high quality. I liked how he arranged the blunders in decreasing order of severity -- starting with darwin's misunderstanding of a serious concept of his own theory and ending with einstein's cosmological constant. The introduction of the cosmological constant into his equations was concering to him, but livio did research that seems to point to the fact that einstein never called it , "my biggest bl [spoilers] the amount of research and prep work done regarding the scientists and their work was high quality. I liked how he arranged the blunders in decreasing order of severity -- starting with darwin's misunderstanding of a serious concept of his own theory and ending with einstein's cosmological constant. The introduction of the cosmological constant into his equations was concering to him, but livio did research that seems to point to the fact that einstein never called it , "my biggest blunder". The cosmological constant was simply addressing inaccurate model depicting a static universe. this was later refuted by hubble's (and others) into the Cosmic Microwave Background. Good Stuff! This book caused to think more what humans and scientists a beautiful theory. Reductionism and copernicacism (belief we are nothing special) stink of dogma and push science into more of religion than the pursuit of truth. Livio himself cites neurological research into how the rational areas of our brains are polluted with emotion and bias. I share that thought completely. I do think the scientific method to be a perfect template upon we can understand everything there is. I just know we fall short of what science needs from its implementors. Natural Selection and the randomness of mutations simply haven't produced extra-rational beings at a high enough volume. Einstein himself was plagued with such a confusion, mistaking the introduction of the lamda cosmological constant as "aesthetically unpleasant". Livio was pushing this humaness of these great scientists the whole time, I later realized. Ok back to the actual book. as a constructive criticism, I found the ordering of the chapters to be slightly confusing, chronologically . The section on Hoyle and his stubborn refusal to admit that the cosmological evidence points to a dynamic universe , instead of the static, steady-state he believed in came before the section on einstein, even it happened after it (chronologically speaking) . I had to do a double take through the book to realize this. I was also listening to the audiobook version , so that probably didn't help since I couldn't just stop and look at the words . tl;dr : Great , thought-provoking book. Good intro into some of the most innovative thoughts in science . slightly disorienting section organization, with minor severity. The introduction into the ideas could have stronger. I don't think the intro to G.R was sufficient for someone unfamiliar. AT the same time, Shrug.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Paul Pessolano

    “Brilliant Blunders” by Mario Livio, published by Simon and Schuster. Category – Science Publication Date - May 14, 2013 This is a very difficult book to review in that it can be classified as very, very good or very, very bad. The rating will be determined by the reader. If the reader is a physicist, astrophysicist, mathematician, or cosmologist the book will be rated very, very good. If the reader has a casual interest and understanding of physics it will probably be rated as a good read. However “Brilliant Blunders” by Mario Livio, published by Simon and Schuster. Category – Science Publication Date - May 14, 2013 This is a very difficult book to review in that it can be classified as very, very good or very, very bad. The rating will be determined by the reader. If the reader is a physicist, astrophysicist, mathematician, or cosmologist the book will be rated very, very good. If the reader has a casual interest and understanding of physics it will probably be rated as a good read. However, if the reader has no interest in science it will probably be rated as very, very bad. Mario Livio is an astrophysicist and has put together the stories of five of the greatest scientists in history, Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kalvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. The stories are not of their greatest accomplishments, but of their “brilliant blunders”. Although these “blunders” will not be apparent to the casual reader they are probably of great significance to those in the scientific community. The saving factor of these “blunders” according to Livio is that science is advanced through error, the truth being in the advancement of science when these errors are disproven. The book takes the reader from the theory of evolution, the discovery of DNA, and the Big Bang. Again, this is a fantastic read for those in the scientific field. A basic understanding of physics and astronomy are a definite must for this book to be enjoyed.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Leah Pedder

    The basic premise of this book is quite interesting, but could be delivered in a better format. In each of the sections, the author endeavors to examine a scientist who was prominent in their field and the greatest mistake that they made in that field. This includes an error by Darwin that would have rendered his theory of natural selection useless and the way that Pauling attempted to create a model for the structure of DNA, but made several lapses in memory or judgement. The best parts of this The basic premise of this book is quite interesting, but could be delivered in a better format. In each of the sections, the author endeavors to examine a scientist who was prominent in their field and the greatest mistake that they made in that field. This includes an error by Darwin that would have rendered his theory of natural selection useless and the way that Pauling attempted to create a model for the structure of DNA, but made several lapses in memory or judgement. The best parts of this book are looking at the human aspects of the included scientists who are often seen as being superhuman. However, more often than not, there is more historical context than humanity in each of the tales of scientific theory gone awry. If the focus was more concise and less historical, I believe that this book would be exceptional. Having heard the author speak on these topics, I can also say that he is much more interesting than his writing would suggest. Maybe his work would be better suited for for a lecture series than for a text format.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Daniel R.

    A catchy title that fails to deliver the goods. Across five famous scientists Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein the premise that each made a stupid or careless mistake is stretched thin. The book does an excellent job of introducing and reviewing the science of genes, age of the earth, DNA structure, steady state universe, and the cosmological constant. However when it switches to exposing the blunder for each scientist I felt the evidence suffered from hindsight bias, really trying t A catchy title that fails to deliver the goods. Across five famous scientists Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein the premise that each made a stupid or careless mistake is stretched thin. The book does an excellent job of introducing and reviewing the science of genes, age of the earth, DNA structure, steady state universe, and the cosmological constant. However when it switches to exposing the blunder for each scientist I felt the evidence suffered from hindsight bias, really trying to extract meaning and intent where direct evidence wasn't always available or reliable. Yes some of the scientists may have been stubborn but each was putting forward good theories that could be falsified and in many cases were. I don't view that as blunders I view that as an inevitable part of the scientific process. The book is a good read to learn about the scientists and their science but take the blunders with a grain of salt.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Gendou

    This book looks at some events in the history of science that share one thing in common. All are blunders made by big-shot scientists, like Darwin and Einstein. The author puts them into proper context, and even shares a bit of his own original research. The science is there to support the history lesson, and not the other way around. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book mainly because Livio doesn't censor the science, or dumb it down for the layperson. The book's thesis is that blunders push scienc This book looks at some events in the history of science that share one thing in common. All are blunders made by big-shot scientists, like Darwin and Einstein. The author puts them into proper context, and even shares a bit of his own original research. The science is there to support the history lesson, and not the other way around. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book mainly because Livio doesn't censor the science, or dumb it down for the layperson. The book's thesis is that blunders push science forward. This seems more true in some chapters than in others. Einstein's cosmological constant, for example, was prescient, indeed. Darwin's oversight of genetic mixing was a foreshadowing, at best. Though Pauling's triple helix was just dumb.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Basile

    I loved the premise of this book, which is that all scientists, even brilliant scientists, make mistakes. Further, these mistakes are part of the scientific process because they fuel additional research and eventually lead to scientific breakthroughs. The book follows 5 famous scientists (Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, Einstein) and discusses their contributions to science as well as their biggest "blunders." My only gripe was that from an estimated ~100 scientists mentioned or quoted in the bo I loved the premise of this book, which is that all scientists, even brilliant scientists, make mistakes. Further, these mistakes are part of the scientific process because they fuel additional research and eventually lead to scientific breakthroughs. The book follows 5 famous scientists (Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, Einstein) and discusses their contributions to science as well as their biggest "blunders." My only gripe was that from an estimated ~100 scientists mentioned or quoted in the book there were only 2 women mentioned at all. From this I can only conclude -- maybe women don't make as many mistakes as men?

  29. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    Picked this one up as a book club read but only managed to get through the first few chapters. I reads as a series of mini-biographies of prominent scientific figures in history... But there seems to be very little that holds the book together, and the author fails to present the material as a cohesive narrative. Actually, I thought the book was going to be about accidental breakthroughs... not the failings / flaws of otherwise brilliant scientists. The former might have made for a more interest Picked this one up as a book club read but only managed to get through the first few chapters. I reads as a series of mini-biographies of prominent scientific figures in history... But there seems to be very little that holds the book together, and the author fails to present the material as a cohesive narrative. Actually, I thought the book was going to be about accidental breakthroughs... not the failings / flaws of otherwise brilliant scientists. The former might have made for a more interesting read, but the latter was rather boring.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mary Keehan

    I tried so hard to finish this one but just couldn't do it. The topic is interesting but the writing is so clunky reading it feels like wading through glue. I was also disappointed that some of the "blunders" were pretty much that the scientist in question did not have a time machine that would allow them to go to the future and see how other discoveries would change their theories. I really wanted to like this one. I tried so hard to finish this one but just couldn't do it. The topic is interesting but the writing is so clunky reading it feels like wading through glue. I was also disappointed that some of the "blunders" were pretty much that the scientist in question did not have a time machine that would allow them to go to the future and see how other discoveries would change their theories. I really wanted to like this one.

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