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Brilliant Blunders - a review

Brilliant Blunders Book CoverBrilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of the Universe, by Mario Livio.

Several times as I was reading this book I was in a public area and, surprisingly, I had several individuals ask me what it was about. Perhaps the title and book cover intrigued them as much as me. It was easy to tell them because the author laid out his plan in the initial chapter.

“The focus of this book ….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.”

Specifically, Brilliant Blunders is about five very well known scientists whose blunders were of very different types, yet all “acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs”. Furthermore, Livio limits his focus to specific big ideas that have intrigued humans from perhaps the “dawn of civilization”, namely “the evolution of life, of the Earth, and of the universe”.

Livio questions how such blunders are possible, asking “hasn’t the intellectual glory of modern times been precisely in the establishment of science as an empirical discipline, and or error-proof mathematics as the “language” of fundamental science?”

Livio relates to us that Darwin’s theory required an understanding of Mendelian genetics and what we now call modern synthesis which came about nearly 70 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species. According to Livio, if Darwin had fully understood the mathematics of ‘blending heredity’ which was prevalent in his own time, then his own theory of evolution would not have worked. Amazingly Livio (or his editors) makes his own type of error in attributing to Mendel the type of incomplete dominance not known until Carl Correns rediscovered Mendel’s work at the beginning of the 20th century. We generally refer to patterns of inheritance that do not follow Mendel’s Laws of Segregation as Non-Mendelian inheritance. In a previous blog I have described how the algorithms prescribed by Mendel and our understanding of meiosis explain Non-Mendelian inheritance. Perhaps to keep focus on Darwin’s blunder, Livio short-cut this explanation.

I was especially interested in the section of the book that described the blunder of Linus Pauling, which was exploited by James Watson and Francis Crick to come up with the current model of DNA. We are probably fully aware of the history of DNA described by Watson in his book, The Double Helix or in the 1987 movie The Race for the Double Helix based on Watson’s book. In Livio’s book, this history is told from a different perspective. There are behind-the-scenes details revealed about Pauling and other supporting scientists in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

I recommend Mario Livio’s book Brilliant Blunders to anyone interested in learning more about five of the biggest scientific ideas that shape our vision of the world we live in and the
scientific blunders that contributed to forming this view.

Click here for a complete list of the books I have reviewed.

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Brilliant Blunders - a review

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