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Brilliant Blunders: A Q&A with Mario Livio

Q&As

Even geniuses make mistakes. That’s the reassuring message of the engrossing new book Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, by theoretical astrophysicist and noted writer Mario Livio.

Marco Livio

© NASA, ESA, and J. Coyle Jr. (for STScI)


Livio, who will give a Frontiers Lecture on Monday, June 10, at the Museum, traces the careers of—and notable “blunders” by—such towering scientific figures as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, as well as two-time Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling; engineer and physicist William Thomson, Lord Kelvin; and pioneering astrophysicist Fred Hoyle.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein in 1920


We recently talked with Livio about what makes a blunder brilliant; his work as an astrophysicist; and whether he has made any brilliant blunders of his own.

So, what is a brilliant blunder?

Whether based on too much confidence, isolation, or ignoring unforeseen possibilities, intellectual blunders are a fact of life for scientists, technologists, engineers—anyone who thinks for a living.

A brilliant blunder is a blunder that was not done because the scientist did sloppy science, or was an inexperienced researcher, but rather because the person was really trying to think innovatively, to think outside the box. Also, it is best if the blunder eventually led to a breakthrough by someone in the field.

Why did you choose to profile the brilliant blunders of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, and Fred Hoyle?

Each of them contributed immensely to our understanding of some type of evolution—evolution of life on Earth, of the Earth itself, of stars, and of the evolution of the universe.

You say that Charles Darwin developed “humankind’s most inspiring nonmathematical theory”: the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. So, what was his blunder?

Darwin [who lived from 1809-1882] thought in terms of the theory of heredity that existed at the time. This theory was basically of blending—like mixing of paint, the characteristics of the father and mother were mixed in offspring like you mix paint.

darwin

Darwin’s blunder was in not grasping, at least initially, that [his theory of] natural selection would not actually have worked if that theory of heredity were also correct. Suppose that the color yellow confers some advantage on some butterfly, but suppose that most of the individuals in a species are blue. If a yellow butterfly mates with a blue, you’d get green—not yellow. And if you continue to mix it with more blue butterflies, eventually the yellow will disappear.

Darwin didn’t get that at first, and in fact it wasn’t until sometime later that the world came to accept Gregor Mendel’s research—which was the first to elucidate the idea that what Mendel called “factors” (what we would later call genes) are not like paint, they are more like decks of cards—if it’s a queen it stays a queen.

 

Have you made any brilliant blunders in your work as a theoretical astrophysicist?

Planetary nebula

Taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, an image of planetary nebula NGC 5189

NASAESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


I think I’ve made many blunders—I don’t think any of them were particularly brilliant! At one point an astronomer claimed to have discovered that objects at the center of six planetary nebulae were actually binary stars. I immediately started working on explaining the formation of those systems—as it turned out, none of these ended up being binary stars. But other astronomers eventually did find nebulae with binary stars at the center, so my theoretical work was useful after all, though it was based on a wrong observation.

It could have been that there were no binary central stars. I could have explained a phenomenon that didn’t exist!

What do you hope your readers take away from this book?

I hope that by the end of the book they’ll understand that in science there isn’t some sort of direct path, but rather that the path can be very, very winding and zigzagging. And you encounter blunders left and right, before you are guided to the correct way.

Purchase tickets to Brilliant Blunders with Mario Livio, on Monday, June 10, at 7:30 pm. 

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