Recently I read that a professor would begin his course by telling his class, “Plato is smarter than you.” This reminder is one I bear in mind when I read the Bible, but it was also apt this past month as I was reading Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein–Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe.
Without arrogance, Livio relates the scientific errors of some of the giants of science–first, introducing his theme by mentioning Aristotle’s blunder of assuming that objects fall to their “natural” place and Freud’s unfounded assumption that women have an “infantile Oedipus complex.” Livio’s book focuses on the blunders of Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Watson and Crick, Fred Hoyle, and Einstein. (It’s reassuring to know even geniuses argue with faith in the data they accept.)
Darwin’s error in presuming that offspring receive a “blend” from the parents caused his theory of evolution later to be generally rejected until scientists learned that Mendel’s experiments with sweet peas proved that something other than (Darwin’s) “blending” was causing characteristics to be transmitted to offspring. Livio respects Darwin, but the story reaffirmed for me that a science paradigm (the narrative embraced by scientists) will be tenaciously defended–even when proven to be problematic or incorrect.
Livio’s account of Lord Kelvin’s blunder examines this scientist without the trepidation that Livio had to keep in mind while exposing Darwin’s error. Instead, Livio depicts Kelvin as a dictatorial scientist (and a foolish Christian) unwilling to consider data that countered his calculations that the earth was not old enough for evolution to have occurred. Kelvin assumed that the earth cools thermodynamically at an unchanging rate, and he argued that the earth and sun were young by using scientists’ nineteenth-century understanding that gravitation collapses the sun, producing its energy. (It was only years later that other scientists developed the new theory that the sun’s power was produced by nuclear fusion).
Livio presents Linus Pauling as an overly ambitious scientist who struggled to become first to discover the structure of DNA, and his blunder that he determined that DNA has the form of a triple helix (I admit that I was unaware that Pauling had worked on DNA). Watson and Crick’s recognition of the double helix structure was later corroborated by the X-ray photography of DNA that had been done by Rosalyn Franklin, but “although she did not object in principle to helical structures, she absolutely refused to assume their existence as a working hypothesis.” Livio notes that her death to cancer likely was caused by her X-ray research.
Livio also recounts Einstein’s error in formulating his “cosmological constant,” but the author handles Einstein with more esteem than he grants to astronomer Fred Hoyle who coined the term “The Big Bang.” Hoyle rejected that cosmology, saying that there never was a “beginning.” Instead, he persistently argued for a steady state model even though data supported “The Big Bang.” This is yet another example of a great scientist using his data to substantiate what later is learned to be incorrect. Hoyle’s achievements, though, included proving what seems like alchemy–that fusion in stars forms elements, notably carbon, which has spawned the much-repeated quip that we humans are all made of stardust.
Reading Livio reminded me that science at all stages says that it does not have Truth with a capital “T.” Scientists, however, are rarely open to ideas that challenge the current “truth.”