Brilliant blunders can be portals to discovery

Mario Livio takes comfort in the gaffes of the greatest scientific minds of all time.

“There is something very reassuring in the fact that even these giants made major blunders,” he said during a talk Wednesday in Seattle to promote his new book. “People would ask me what the book was about; I’d tell them it’s called Brilliant Blunders, and it’s not an autobiography.”

Mario Livio

Mario Livio spoke about his latest book, Brilliant Blunders, May 15 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

In Brilliant Blunders Livio, senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, examines major mistakes by some of the greatest scientists ever: Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, Lord Kelvin, and Fred Hoyle. He talked about three of the examples during his lecture at Town Hall Seattle.

First, Livio took on Darwin and evolution, which Livio called “the single best idea that anybody has ever had.” Darwin’s blunder, though, was adopting a theory of blended heredity, which was a fairly widely accepted viewpoint of the time. Blended heredity held that the characteristics of a mother and father would be mixed, as one might mix a gin and tonic.

“Darwin did not understand, at first at least, that with blended heredity there is no way natural selection would have ever worked,” Livio said, noting that if you bred black and white cats, within a few generations you would only have gray. “In your gin and tonic, if you mix it with lots of tonic, in the end there is no gin.”

In Darwin’s time Gregor Mendel was coming up with the correct model for genetics, but Livio said Darwin didn’t know of Mendel’s work, and if he had he probably would not have understood it—“Darwin was very weak in mathematics,” he noted—but somehow Darwin had nailed evolution.

“When you have somebody who is a real genius some of the steps along the way may be wrong, but somehow their insight leads them to the correct result,” Livio said.

Brilliant blunders

The next big blunder considered was Linus Pauling’s attempt to come up with a structure for DNA.

“Pauling’s model for DNA had the wrong number of strands, it was built inside out, and there was nothing to hold it together. Worse yet, he tried to hold it together with hydrogens,” Livio marveled. The “A” in DNA stands for acid, which Livio explained means that when you put it in water it should release hydrogen. But in Pauling’s model hydrogen was holding the structure together, so it couldn’t release it.

“Here was the greatest chemist of the world proposing a model the violated the basic rules of chemistry!” Livio exclaimed. He discusses Pauling’s shortcoming at length in the book, but said it may have been a combination of a race to publish and a bit of egotism from previous successes.

“If I work out the basic structure,” Livio surmised Pauling may have been thinking, “all of the other details will work out.”

Finally Livio took on Einstein, whom he called “the embodiment of genius.” Livio noted that when Einstein developed the theory of relativity he assumed that the universe was standing still. But that couldn’t be, because its gravity would cause it to collapse on itself. So Einstein added what Livio called a “fudge factor”—the cosmological constant—to make things balance out.

Then, when Lemaître and Hubble found the universe to be expanding, Einstein concluded he didn’t need the constant and took the term out of his equation. Fast-forward to 1998 and the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating—because of the constant.

“Einstein’s blunder was to take the term out, not to put it in!” Livio said. “If he left that term in he could have predicted that the universe should be accelerating.”

The conclusion Livio draws from these brilliant blunders is that science can be messy and that there’s no straight line to the truth. Goofs are good.

“When you think outside the box you’re likely to make mistakes every now and then,” he said. “If you want to be certain all the time, your progress will be so incremental that you actually may miss the real breakthroughs.”

“This is not to advocate for sloppy science,” Livio continued. “This is just to say that you have to allow for these things that I call brilliant blunders. You have to allow for the possibility of making breakthroughs through processes that occasionally will actually hit upon various obstacles.

“Scientific blunders can be portals to discovery.”