Friday, October 2, 2015

Brilliant Blunders

Book Review : Brilliant Blunders
Author : Mario Livio
My Rating : 3 out of 5

The complete title of the book is “Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe”.

Yes, that’s a mouthful, and sadly, not accurate.

When I started reading this book, I got the impression that the blunders as committed by these great scientists somehow helped us understand the truth eventually. After reading the book, I am sure my impression was wrong, but I don’t even agree that these were some colossal blunders.

Author Mario Livio presents five case studies of great scientists and their revolutionary contribution to science. He also wants to show what blunders they made. There is a lot to disagree here. First, it’s beyond argument, that Darwin and Einstein, both have changed our thinking profoundly. The same cannot be that easily argued about Lord Kelvin. Not that Kelvin was not a great scientist, he indeed was. But I don’t think his contribution can be kept on the same pedestal as Darwin and Einstein.

Secondly, I completely failed to see the so called blunder in most cases. Let’s talk about the chapters on Darwin as an example. The theory of evolution needs a compelling theory of inheritance. At that time, no such theory was known. Darwin was aware of the gap, and tried coming up with his own theory of inheritance. It was flawed and he himself wasn’t very convinced. By stroke of pure bad luck, he missed out on paying attention to what Mendel was documenting. The author has done some original historical research to support what he is saying, and I believe what he has written. But where is the blunder? Darwin tried filling the gap, but couldn’t. That’s no blunder. 

The course of scientific discovery has never been a straight line, or a simple act of building knowledge upon knowledge. There have been enormous number of dead ends, discredited theories, stubbornly wrong scientists etc. We all know that. Yes, even great minds sometimes cannot solve all the pieces of the puzzle. I cannot call it a blunder.

To be fair, the author is not trying to ridicule anyone. He is clearly trying to explain why it happened. What was the mental block, where did the intuition failed and so on. That’s not what the title, or the introduction conveys correctly. The title definitely does bad service to the book’s impact. While the author may have succeeded in explaining some cases, he simply has not, in others.

That criticism apart, I have to give credit where it’s due. The author has written wonderfully about Fred Hoyle, one of the best known cases of a scientist sticking to a discredited theory. His great mind made huge contributions to cosmology, including the “Steady State Theory”. That theory was eventually won over by the “Big Bang Theory”, whose name was ironically coined by Hoyle himself. But Hoyle could not let go of his own theory. Mario Livio does a good job of explaining why it might have been so.

I think the best historical research done by the author comes at the end. Many popular science books tell us that Einstein called his introduction of the cosmological constant as hist worst blunder. You will find here a very conclusive case, that Einstein never said so, and the origin of this myth is perhaps a prank by Gamow. This is some nice contribution to the history of Science.

Overall it’s an easy book to read, and in spite of my criticisms, I can recommend it. I must mention that it’s more about the history than the science. So if you are looking for understanding the theories themselves, you will have to look elsewhere.

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