Brilliant blunders

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Mario Livio definitely does not pick on someone smaller than he. Indeed, when he decided to write about what he considers scientific blunders, he went after Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein.

The full title of his latest book is Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, which is more of an abstract than a title. It would be incorrect to claim that Livio has not laid a glove on any of his subjects, but neither, it seems to me, are all of the errors “colossal.” Still, the book was well worth reading and contains excellent introductory material for those who are not experts in the subjects and even for those who are. The organization of the book is also interesting in that every chapter relates in some way to evolution, whether of life or the earth or the universe, and the transitions from scientist to scientist are relatively seamless.

The portions of the book that will most appeal to PT readers are probably those concerning Darwin and Pauling, though Kelvin, Hoyle, and Einstein are surely not without interest. I do not want to give anything away, but it seems to me that Darwin’s error was anything but a blunder. True, Darwin at one time fancied blended inheritance, which would have ruled out natural selection, but by the time of his alleged blunder, he had realized that inheritance was not blended and was toying with particles of inheritance that he called gemmules. He missed inventing Mendelian genetics, possibly because of his aversion to mathematics. I will not reveal what his blunder was, but I will note that inheritance of acquired characteristics was not an unreasonable theory at the time.

Kelvin, by contrast, truly blundered: He used a mere back-of-the-envelope calculation based on simplistic assumptions to estimate the age of the earth and put it up against the geological theory of Lyell and the theory of evolution, both of which were based on significant evidence. Pauling also blundered, in more ways than one, while proposing an incorrect—indeed, impossible—structure for DNA.

Fred Hoyle is the principal originator of the steady-state theory of the universe. He and his colleagues postulated continuous creation of matter in order to keep the universe stable despite a measured expansion. Hoyle, who originated the term big bang, was not alone in thinking that the universe ought to be stable, rather than expanding or contracting, but he arguably stuck to his theory even after it had been refuted beyond reasonable doubt. Einstein, too, thought at one time that the universe should not be expanding, and he invented a cosmological constant to keep it stable. Livio argues, however, that the invention of the cosmological constant was not a blunder; I will let you read the book if you want to find out what Livio thinks was Einstein’s real blunder. Interesting as Livio’s accounts are, I was not entirely convinced that Hoyle’s and Einstein’s mistakes were really blunders, even though, as I noted, Hoyle (who seems to have liked controversial opinions) may have persisted in his error beyond reason.

The book is well prepared and easy to read, but it is not entirely without flaws. I thought that the author spent far too much time on one or two issues, such as whether Einstein really called the cosmological constant his greatest blunder and whether Darwin was familiar with Mendel’s work. More importantly, I was somewhat put off by the author’s apparent need to “psychoanalyze” his subjects and deduce why they committed the blunders they committed. An article in Psychology Today takes Livio to task for doing precisely that. As the author, Glenn Altschuler, notes, “The ‘illusion of confidence,’ ‘ cognitive dissonance,’ and ‘denial’ … might be applied with equal force to any or all of Livio’s five subjects.” Livio, an accomplished science writer, should not have ventured into pop psychology.

Finally, I have something of a prejudice against books that provide lengthy endnotes that force the reader to flip back and forth between the text and the footnotes (if something is worth putting in the book, put it in; otherwise, leave it out). But I read this book in a Kindle edition, and only by accident did I even find the notes, after I realized that I had finished the book at about the 70 % mark. If the author insists on notes (other than references), it seems to me, they must be linked to the text or somehow embedded in the text as footnotes. Publishers of electronic books, please take note.

28 Comments

It sounds like an interesting book, but every one of these “blunders” (listed above) is one so well-known that even I have heard about it.

The problem with natural selection and blending inheritance was pointed out by the engineer Fleeming Jenkin in a review of The Origin of Species in the North British Review in 1867. Jenkin was a pioneer of electrical engineering (a modern building at the University of Edinburgh is named after him). That Mendelian genetics solved the problem was only fully appreciated after R. A. Fisher published The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection in 1930. (I will not explain Darwin’s “blunder”, so as to avoid a spoiler. It was more like a quick fix using the mistaken assumptions of the time).

No mention of Darwin’s creation of National Socialism?

Oh…right…just part of ID’s endless blunders.

Glen Davidson

With regard to Kindle ebooks: I have read a number of such books and the better edited ones do have linked notes. Unfortunately, too many ebooks are created quickly without the effort required to make the links. With a bit of care, it can be made easy and fun to click on a note within the text and be instantly taken to the note and then back again. It is simply a matter of the publisher making the commitment to turn out a quality product.

I haven’t actually investigated this, but there are a number of blunders associated with Kelvin. I have heard that he (1) did not accept Maxwell’s equations (he thought that they were too theoretical) (2) did not think that a woman (in particular, Marie Curie) could do Nobel-quality science (3) did not believe that there was any possibility of heavier-than-air powered human flight …

TomS said:

I haven’t actually investigated this, but there are a number of blunders associated with Kelvin.

Kelvin’s famous calculation of the age of the earth was connected with Fleeming Jenkin’s criticism of natural selection. Jenkin was a friend of Kelvin’s and had worked with him on laying undersea telegraph cables. Jenkin’s critique of Darwin was intended to be supportive of Kelvin’s criticism of Darwin’s views.

1. Actually, Kelvin’s calculations were not out of line at the time. It was only with the discovery of radioactivity, which neither Kelvin or anybody else had the slightest knowledge of at the time that a source of heat production in the interior of the earth was found. Even Darwin admitted that, if Kelvin was correct, his theory of evolution was untenable. It should also be noted that, perhaps an urban legend, Kelvin was present at a lecture by, I believe J. J. Thompson, on radioactivity and was heard to admit that his calculation of the age of the earth was wrong.

2. It should also be noted that Maxwell rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution.

3. It should be noted that Einstein was dubious about quantum mechanics (god does not play dice with the universe) and was even more dubious about black holes.

It was Enrico Fermi who was quoted as saying that a scientist who has never been wrong is a scientist who has not accomplish much, or something along those lines.

TomS said:

I haven’t actually investigated this, but there are a number of blunders associated with Kelvin. I have heard that he (1) did not accept Maxwell’s equations (he thought that they were too theoretical) (2) did not think that a woman (in particular, Marie Curie) could do Nobel-quality science (3) did not believe that there was any possibility of heavier-than-air powered human flight …

Actually, Kelvin’s calculations were not out of line at the time. It was only with the discovery of radioactivity, which neither Kelvin or anybody else had the slightest knowledge of at the time that a source of heat production in the interior of the earth was found.

Actually, Kelvin’s calculation was based on an incorrect assumption regarding the thermal conductivity of the earth and a very small data set from which he estimated the temperature gradient. The earth’s internal radioactivity was not the major factor.

I did not know that Maxwell rejected Darwin’s theory; so much the worse for him. Einstein did not so much reject quantum mechanics as reject the interpretation – he insisted that there must be some underlying determinism.

One can find examples of Kelvin’s calculations on the Internet.

Here is an example.

The Carslaw and Jaeger reference I have somewhere in my library. I will try to dig for it.

My last comment referenced a 2-D calculation. Here is another interesting paper.

According to the attached link, 80% of the heat in the interior of the earth is produced by radioactive decay.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth#Heat

Matt Young said:

Actually, Kelvin’s calculations were not out of line at the time. It was only with the discovery of radioactivity, which neither Kelvin or anybody else had the slightest knowledge of at the time that a source of heat production in the interior of the earth was found.

Actually, Kelvin’s calculation was based on an incorrect assumption regarding the thermal conductivity of the earth and a very small data set from which he estimated the temperature gradient. The earth’s internal radioactivity was not the major factor.

I did not know that Maxwell rejected Darwin’s theory; so much the worse for him. Einstein did not so much reject quantum mechanics as reject the interpretation – he insisted that there must be some underlying determinism.

Actually, I noticed on Phil Plait’s web site Bad Astronomy that I mentioned J. J. Thompson being the lecturer in question. Someone corrected me and stated that the lecturer was actually Ernest Rutherford.

Matt Young said:

Actually, Kelvin’s calculations were not out of line at the time. It was only with the discovery of radioactivity, which neither Kelvin or anybody else had the slightest knowledge of at the time that a source of heat production in the interior of the earth was found.

Actually, Kelvin’s calculation was based on an incorrect assumption regarding the thermal conductivity of the earth and a very small data set from which he estimated the temperature gradient. The earth’s internal radioactivity was not the major factor.

I did not know that Maxwell rejected Darwin’s theory; so much the worse for him. Einstein did not so much reject quantum mechanics as reject the interpretation – he insisted that there must be some underlying determinism.

See “John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth: A missed opportunity in geodynamics,” by England, Molnar, and Richter, who say in their abstract,

We show this popular story to be incorrect; introducing the known distribution of radioactivity into Kelvin’s calculation does not invalidate its conclusion. In 1895, before the discovery of radioactivity, John Perry showed that convection in the Earth’s interior would invalidate Kelvin’s estimate for the age of the Earth, but Perry’s analysis was neglected or forgotten, with the consequence that a powerful argument in favor of mobilism was overlooked during the first few decades of debate about continental drift.

Matt Young said:

See “John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth: A missed opportunity in geodynamics,” by England, Molnar, and Richter, who say in their abstract,

We show this popular story to be incorrect; introducing the known distribution of radioactivity into Kelvin’s calculation does not invalidate its conclusion. In 1895, before the discovery of radioactivity, John Perry showed that convection in the Earth’s interior would invalidate Kelvin’s estimate for the age of the Earth, but Perry’s analysis was neglected or forgotten, with the consequence that a powerful argument in favor of mobilism was overlooked during the first few decades of debate about continental drift.

Weird; my link to that paper didn’t work.

It is the same paper that Matt linked to.

Let’s try again to see if the link I put in works. I see the link in the comment box as I type it, but it posts as a link to a blank page.

I think I see the mistake. I typed hrer instead of href.

SLC said:

2. It should also be noted that Maxwell rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution.

I don’t believe this. Maxwell was an orthodox Christian and apparently believed in Noah’s Flood in some form.

However, the IDiots claimed Maxwell was anti-Darwinist and their only evidence was a satirical poem Maxwell wrote which briefly mentioned man’s descent from apes. There are many satirical songs about evolution; it does not make one a creationist. If there were real evidence that Maxwell were anti-Darwinist, the IDiots would have trumpeted it.

Just to lend support to Matt Young’s comment: Einstein didn’t reject quantum theory, which is not surprising as he more or less kicked it off with his paper on the photoelectric effect. Einstein rejected the Copenhagen Interpretation and later the Many Worlds Hypothesis in favour of what is usually referred to as the Hidden Variables interpretation.

Further to diogeneslamp’s intuition that Maxwell has been co-opted by creationist quote-miners, I proffer this article by Charles Petzold (some of you will know him as the author of the very excellent Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware):

http://www.charlespetzold.com/etc/m[…]olution.html

It appears that Maxwell was arguing for design in the fabric of the universe, but very specifically not in the matter of biological evolution. And Petzold includes this fantastic quote from a letter Maxwell wrote to the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol:

“I should be very sorry if an interpretation founded on a most conjectural scientific hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis, even if by doing it got rid of the old statement of the commentators which has long ceased to be intelligible. The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.”

Whatever Maxwell’s views on evolution, he was clearly opposed to the insensate Biblical literalism of the people who are happily misquoting him.

Chris Lawson said:

Just to lend support to Matt Young’s comment: Einstein didn’t reject quantum theory, which is not surprising as he more or less kicked it off with his paper on the photoelectric effect. Einstein rejected the Copenhagen Interpretation and later the Many Worlds Hypothesis in favour of what is usually referred to as the Hidden Variables interpretation.

It would have been difficult for Einstein to reject the Many Worlds interpretation, since the latter was first formulated by Everett in 1957, two years after Einstein’s death.

Chris Lawson said:

Further to diogeneslamp’s intuition that Maxwell has been co-opted by creationist quote-miners, I proffer this article by Charles Petzold (some of you will know him as the author of the very excellent Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware):

http://www.charlespetzold.com/etc/m[…]olution.html

It appears that Maxwell was arguing for design in the fabric of the universe, but very specifically not in the matter of biological evolution. And Petzold includes this fantastic quote from a letter Maxwell wrote to the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol:

“I should be very sorry if an interpretation founded on a most conjectural scientific hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis, even if by doing it got rid of the old statement of the commentators which has long ceased to be intelligible. The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.”

Whatever Maxwell’s views on evolution, he was clearly opposed to the insensate Biblical literalism of the people who are happily misquoting him.

Thanks for that. Maxwell is deservedly a hero of physics and it’s a shame to see him caricatured by creationists.

By the way, does anybody know a refutation of the “Louis Pasteur the YEC” myth?

SLC said:

According to the attached link, 80% of the heat in the interior of the earth is produced by radioactive decay.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth#Heat

SLC said:

Actually, Kelvin’s calculations were not out of line at the time. It was only with the discovery of radioactivity, which neither Kelvin or anybody else had the slightest knowledge of at the time that a source of heat production in the interior of the earth was found.

Matt Young said:

Actually, Kelvin’s calculation was based on an incorrect assumption regarding the thermal conductivity of the earth and a very small data set from which he estimated the temperature gradient. The earth’s internal radioactivity was not the major factor.

I did not know that Maxwell rejected Darwin’s theory; so much the worse for him. Einstein did not so much reject quantum mechanics as reject the interpretation – he insisted that there must be some underlying determinism.

I understand that calculations of the residual heat from accretion have to do with the gravitational potential energy. But does that calculation take into account how the mass accreted? Wouldn’t the impact of something like Theia bring additional energy into the system, in the form of additional kinetic and rotational energy, beyond just the energy of the constituent mass “from material falling from infinity”? Or is, in fact, the kinetic energy of the “material falling from infinity” already included in the kinetic energy of the impactor? Put another way, would the energy from “direct” accretion from the primordial dust cloud be any different than the combined energy of two massive bodies, each of which accreted from the primordial cloud?

I wonder, because the other body brought enough additional energy to fling the mass of the Moon (and then some) back into space. Surely that counts as something “more”. Doesn’t it? Or, did that energy “loss” actually “cool” the resulting Earth more than it would have been had the entire mass held together?

And please don’t say, “The obvious calculations are left as an assignment for the student.” :-) It’s late, and I’m tired. And lazy.

glipsnort,

You’re right. Thanks for pointing out my error. I don’t know where I got the idea that Einstein had rejected the MWI.

Scott F,

I’m having a little trouble understanding your question, but it seems to me that you may be being loose with how you define a system. If your system is only primordial Earth, then, yes, Theia will bring more energy into the system on impact. If your system is primordial Earth + Theia, then there is no increase in energy in the impact that creates modern Earth + Moon (in fact, there will be some energy lost).

And although I’m not up to providing equations, I would expect that a collision resulting in a single planet would be hotter than a collision resulting in a planet + moon because more of the gravitational energy will be converted to heat – and I would also expect a larger body to radiate less heat due to its surface area:volume ratio than two smaller bodies with the same total mass. Unless someone corrects me, I’d expect that if the Earth had completely swallowed Theia it would have been hotter to start with and been slower to cool.

Chris Lawson said:

Scott F,

I’m having a little trouble understanding your question, but it seems to me that you may be being loose with how you define a system. If your system is only primordial Earth, then, yes, Theia will bring more energy into the system on impact. If your system is primordial Earth + Theia, then there is no increase in energy in the impact that creates modern Earth + Moon (in fact, there will be some energy lost).

And although I’m not up to providing equations, I would expect that a collision resulting in a single planet would be hotter than a collision resulting in a planet + moon because more of the gravitational energy will be converted to heat – and I would also expect a larger body to radiate less heat due to its surface area:volume ratio than two smaller bodies with the same total mass. Unless someone corrects me, I’d expect that if the Earth had completely swallowed Theia it would have been hotter to start with and been slower to cool.

Hmm… I guess what I’m asking is, is there any difference in the final heat energy content between Earth 1.0 plus Theia, versus Earth 1.0 plus the same mass as Theia, but accreted more gradually over a longer period of time? (Assuming the mass of the Moon is balance out on one side of the equation or the other.)

I assume that there would be a dramatic difference in the distribution of material within Earth 2.0, as it probably remelted a significant portion of the interior, but that’s a different question.

I’d think that if two large objects collide and become one object, the kinetic energy of their relative motion would be turned into kinetic energy of their molecules within the resulting object, i.e., heat.

Henry J said:

I’d think that if two large objects collide and become one object, the kinetic energy of their relative motion would be turned into kinetic energy of their molecules within the resulting object, i.e., heat.

That’s my point. Is the resulting heat energy of two large colliding objects any greater than the heat energy of the equivalent mass coalescing more gradually? Stated another way, does the relative kinetic energy brought into the system by part of the final mass depend on how that mass is organized? Theia versus the equivalent amount of smaller planetary-forming particles? And is that difference in kinetic energy a significant portion of the total gravitational binding energy of the final system?

It might depend on where Theia came from. If the aphelion of Theia’s orbit were, say, in the asteroid belt, it would probably bring a lot more energy than if the aphelion just happened to coincide with Earth-1.0’s orbit. Alternatively, if the coalescing mass was more distributed in space and time, with a wider distribution of energies, most of them nearer Earth’s orbit, then the total energy contribution might be much less. Maybe??

I think the last few comments may be conflating 2 calculations. Kelvin’s estimate of the age of the sun was based on gravitational potential energy. His estimate of the age of the earth was based on thermal conductivity. Estimating the age of the sun in that way at that time was not a blunder.

I do not know anything about the Theia hypothesis, but (presuming that Theia had flown in from afar) the energy would not depend on the distribution of the incident mass – that is, whether the earth absorbed Theia or coalesced from an equivalent mass of particles. But that is not relevant to Kelvin’s estimate of the age of the earth.

I had another thought: With gradual accumulation of mass (and heat), some of that heat will radiate away in the meantime, so the total at any given time won’t be as high as with a single collision.

Henry

There are a lot of other factors that come into the dissipation of energy from a bound system.

Bombardments of sufficient kinetic energy will melt the materials of which planets are made. However, subsequent cooling will depend on the thermal conductivity of the frozen outer crust of the cooling body and whether or not there is significant heat transport due to convection within the molten materials inside the crust.

Phonons and material transport are the most significant mechanisms for getting heat to the surface of the planet. After that, it is radiation into outer space.

Layering can also be a significant barrier to heat transport through solid materials. Mismatches in the thermal conductivity between layers leads to the reflection of phonons back into the direction from which they came.

Radiation from the surface of the planet depends on the color of the materials at the surface. Black materials radiate more efficiently than white materials. The spectrum of radiated energy depends crucially on just what minerals are doing the radiating.

Highly eccentric orbits lead to “massaging” by gravitational tidal forces. Circular orbits do not produce changing tidal forces that massage the materials until they melt.

Circular orbits generally suggest older systems that have settled down into their lowest energy configurations for a given angular momentum. Highly eccentric orbits generally are characteristic of younger systems still in the process of dissipating energy at a faster rate.

SLC says that it was Rutherford who gave the lecture at which Kelvin was present. It was indeed. There’s a good biography of Kelvin by David Linley (“Degrees Kelvin: the genius and tragedy of William Thomson, Aurum Press, 2004) in which he quotes a nice comment by Rutherford: “Long afterward, Rutherford recalled Kelvin with fond indulgence. In 1904 he had given a public lecture at the Royal Institution on radioactivity, in which he intended to touch on the question of the earth’s age. Kelvin was in the audience. In his much-retold account Rutherford recalled that “to my relief, Kelvin fell fast asleep, but as I came to the important point, I saw the old bird sit up, open an eye, and cock a baleful glance at me! Then a sudden inspiration came, and I said Lord Kelvin had limited the age of the earth, provided no new source was discovered. That prophetic utterance refers to what we are now discussing tonight, radium. Behold! the old boy beamed upon me.”

Btw, re TomS’s comments, Marie Curie is not mentioned in the book at all and nor is heavier than air flight. But given that Kelvin was in his dotage by the time Curie was active or heavier than air flight was being thought seriously about I can’t see that any off-the-cuff remarks he may have made should be treated in any way other than casually.

He did have problem’s with Maxwell’s equations, and with Heaviside’s (and others’) reduction of them to the four field equations, but that was partly because he was unwilling to abandon the ether theory. It’s worth quoting Oliver Lodge here re a meeting of the British Academy at Bath in 1888, when the announcement of Hertz’s discovery of EM waves as predicted by Maxwell’s theory was given. “Lord Kelvin who had hitherto been hostile to Maxwell’s theory, began to be shaken in his opposition to it, and went about with the second volume [of Maxwell’s Treatise] under his arm, every now and again appealing to FitzGerald to explain a passage. The theory hardly fitted in with his own conceptions, and I should say he was never an enthusiastic admirer of Maxwell, who was a younger man that he, and had admittedly assimilated much knowledge from his senior.”

In summary, Kelvin’s theory on the age of the earth did have a stifling effect on the biologists and geologists of the day, but his physics was correct according to what was then known. When new facts came along to prove him wrong he was in his old age and his theories by that time had no stifling effect on the younger generation. It all came out well in the end.

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