Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

BOOK: Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe
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 Mistakes and Blunders

 The Origin

 Yea, All Which It Inherit, Shall Dissolve

 How Old Is the Earth?

 Certainty Generally Is Illusion

 Interpreter of Life

 Whose DNA Is It Anyway?

for Big Bang

 The Same Throughout Eternity?

 The “Biggest Blunder”

 Out of Empty Space



About Mario Livio





To Noga and Danielle



hroughout the entire period that I have been working on this book, every few weeks someone would ask me what my book was about. I developed a standard answer: “It is about blunders, and it is
an autobiography!” This would get a few laughs and the occasional approbation “What an interesting idea.” My objective was simple: to correct the impression that scientific breakthroughs are purely success stories. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is the road to triumph paved with blunders, but the bigger the prize, the bigger the potential blunder.

Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, wrote famously, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the
starry heavens above me and the moral law within me
.” In the time that has passed since the publication of his
The Critique of Practical Reason
(1788), we have made impressive progress in understanding the former; considerably less so, in my humble opinion, in elucidating the latter. It is apparently much more difficult to make life or mind comprehensible to itself. Nevertheless, the life sciences in general—and the research into the operation of the human brain in particular—are truly picking up speed. So it may not be altogether inconceivable after all that one day we will even fully understand why evolution has concocted a sentient species.

While this book is about some of the remarkable endeavors to figure out life and the cosmos, it is more concerned with the journey than with the destination. I tried to concentrate on the thought process and the obstacles on the way to discovery rather than on the achievements themselves.

Many people have helped me along the way, some maybe even unknowingly. I am grateful to Steve Mojzsis and Reika Yokochi for discussions on topics related to geology. I thank Jack Dunitz, Horace Freeland Judson, Matt Meselson, Evangelos Moudrianakis, Alex Rich, Jack Szostak, and Jim Watson for conversations on chemistry, biology, and specifically on Linus Pauling’s work. I am indebted to Peter Eggleton, John Faulkner, Geoffrey Hoyle, Jayant Narlikar, and Lord Martin Rees for helpful discussions on astrophysics and cosmology, and on Fred Hoyle’s work.

I would also like to express my gratitude to all the people who provided me with invaluable materials for this book, and in particular to: Adam Perkins and the staff of the Cambridge University Library, for materials on Darwin and on Lord Kelvin; Mark Hurn of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, for materials on Lord Kelvin and on Fred Hoyle; Amanda Smith of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, for materials on Fred Hoyle and for processing photos related to Watson and Crick; Clifford Meade and Chris Petersen of the Special Collections Department of Oregon State University, for materials on Linus Pauling; Loma Karklins of the Caltech Archives, for material on Linus Pauling; Sarah Brooks from the Nature Publishing Group, for material on Rosalind Franklin; Bob Carswell and Peter Hingley for materials on Georges Lemaître from the Royal Astronomical Society; Liliane Moens of the Archives Georges Lemaître, for materials on Georges Lemaître; Kathryn McKee of St. John’s College, Cambridge, for materials on Fred Hoyle; and Barbara Wolff of the Albert Einstein Archives, Diana Kormos Buchwald of the Einstein Papers Project, Daniel Kennefick of the University of Arkansas, Michael Simonson of the Leo Baeck Institute, Christine Lutz of Princeton University, and Christine Di Bella of the Institute for Advanced Study for materials on Einstein.

Special thanks are due to Jill Lagerstrom, Elizabeth Fraser, and Amy Gonigam of the Space Telescope Science Institute, and to the staff at the Johns Hopkins University Library for their continuous bibliographic support. I am grateful to Sharon Toolan for her
professional help in preparing the manuscript for print, to Pam Jeffries for skillfully drawing some of the figures, and to Zak Concannon for cleaning some of the figures. As always, my most patient and supportive ally has been my wife, Sofie.

Finally, I thank my agent, Susan Rabiner, for her relentless encouragement; my editor, Bob Bender, for his thoughtful comments; Loretta Denner, for her assistance during copyediting; and Johanna Li, for her dedication during the entire production of this book.



Great blunders are often made, like large ropes, of a multitude of fibres. Take the cable thread by thread, take separately all the little determining motives, you break them one after another, and you say: that is all. Wind them and twist them together they become an enormity.



hen the mercurial Bobby Fischer, perhaps the most famous chess player in the history of the game, finally showed up in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the summer of 1972 for his
world championship match against Boris Spassky, the anticipation in the chess world was so thick you could cut it with a chain saw. Even people who had never shown any interest in chess before were holding their breath for what had been dubbed “the Match of the Century.” Yet in the twenty-ninth move of the very first game, in a position that appeared to be leading to a dead draw, Fischer chose a move that even amateur chess players would have rejected instinctively as a mistake. This may have been a typical manifestation of what is known as “chess blindness”—an error that in the chess literature is denoted by “??”—and would have disgraced a five-year-old in a local chess club. Particularly astonishing was the fact that the mistake was committed by a man who’d smashed his way to the match with the Russian Spassky after an extraordinary sequence of twenty successive wins against the world’s top players. (In most
world-class competitions, there are easily as many draws as outright victories.) Is this type of “blindness” something that happens only in chess? Or are other intellectual enterprises also prone to similarly surprising mistakes?

BOOK: Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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