Brilliant blunders

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.