Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Brilliant Blunder?

This is a long-pending review of Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio, a bestseller I read last year. This book tells some interesting and lively snippets from the lives and work of five scientistic luminaries: Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. It makes an enjoyable read albeit with one hiccup: it (in my opinion) is largely mistitled. These five scientists were all "brilliant" without a doubt. But I am not as sure about the "blunder" component. 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.

Based on my reading of this book, 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 emerging discoveries outside his domain, such as radioactivity, and soon 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 as 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 seemed completely contrived. While the stories are pleasant to read, the (catchy) title seems more like a marketing ploy. 

This is a fabulous book based on a faulty premise. Mario Livio's brilliant blunder?

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