Book Review: Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio

When I first read the name of the book while browsing through Amazon I expected that the book was based on inventions and discoveries that were ‘a result of mistake/blunder’ made by the scientist. You know, like penicillin and super glue. So I added it to my bucket list, and finally, after a couple of months, I read it. Disclaimer: I was wrong. Instead, it was about serious and big blunders made by some of the finest men of science, which was unexpected of them. And it resulted in no good(not for them at least, and not in a discovery or invention directly). 


Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio


Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio is a perfect example to show that even the finest geniuses can make mistakes because that’s the most humane thing to do. It is about not losing hopes when you commit a mistake because even Einstein has done them. Just be more vigilant, open-minded, and more importantly consider that you can be mistaken and take into account other people’s suggestions.

The book discusses the blunders of five scientists: Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, Albert Einstein and, Lord Kelvin. Charles Darwin was mistaken about genealogy, Lord Kelvin and Linus Pauling were too proud to accept mistakes and stuck to their point of view despite errors, Fred Hoyle had a controversial and perhaps wrong theory about the universe which might have cost him a Nobel prize and, Einstein was not very open-minded regarding the state of universe, and perhaps was a bit too doubtful of his actions. The book covers up all their stories, which are in a way related to each other, in a very story-telling manner with deep research gone into the topic. Mario Livio has himself put in extra effort to track down historical debates to have a valid opinion on the side he chooses. Spoiler: Einstein never said that the cosmological constant was his biggest blunder. 

Here are the issues the scientists were trying to solve or understand: Evolution and appearance of mutation in successive generations(Charles Darwin), Shape of DNA molecule(Linus Pauling), Age of Earth(Lord Kelvin), Big Bang and synthesis of elements(Fred Hoyle) and, the state of the universe(Albert Einstein).

To get an idea of the mistakes here is a small spoiler: Linus Pauling, the father of modern chemistry, suggested a model of DNA molecule that wasn’t an acid at all. FYI the ‘A’ in DNA stands for ACID!!

Here are some quotes from the book I really liked:

(Lord Kelvin to his student Jack Dunitz)“Jack, if you think you have a good idea, publish it! Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes do no harm in science because there are lots of smart people out there who will immediately spot a mistake and correct it. You can only make a fool of yourself and that does no harm, except to your pride. If it happens to be a good idea, however, and you don’t publish it, science may suffer a loss.”

(Written by Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus of Alexandria) It would be a mark of great naivety to think that the world was created in six days, or indeed in time at all; for time is nothing but the sequence of days and nights, and these things are necessarily connected with the motion of the Sun above and below the Earth. But the SUn is a part of the heavens, so that time must be recognized as something posterior to the world. So it would be correct to say not that the world was created in time, but that time owed its existence to the world. (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Fred Hoyle on formal education: “Between the ages of five and nine, I was almost perpetually at war with the education system… As soon as I learned from my mother that there was a place called school that I must attend willy nilly– a place where you were obliged to think about matters prescribed by a ‘teacher,’ not about matters decided by yourself- I was appalled.” (WOW!)

“Bold ideas, unjustified anticipations, and speculative thought are our only means of interpreting nature…Those among us who are unwilling to expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation do not take part in the scientific game.” – Karl Popper

Did you know, we didn’t know about other galaxies until 1924?!?! We thought the Milky Way galaxy was all the universe there is. Long way have we traveled down!

“The aspiration of truth is more precious than its assured possession.”

So, concluding, I would advise you to grab hold of this book to fulfil your non-fiction hunger. Happy Reading!

-The Cosmogasmic Person.



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