One thing we often forget about great scientists, especially as they are lionized and mythologized: they made mistakes. Sometimes big ones. Sometimes, even, brilliant ones.
Charles Darwin, for instance, didn’t understand genetics. He and Gregor Mendel were as ships passing in the night. Granted, Darwin eventually realized that he needed a better theory of heredity in order for his idea of natural selection to work—so he came up with “pangenesis,” a completely wrong idea that… well, the less said about it the better.
But Darwin isn’t the only one. From Linus Pauling to Albert Einstein, many of history’s greatest thinkers have blundered badly on occasion. They’ve made major mistakes—sometimes outright embarrassing ones. And now, acclaimed scientist and science writer Mario Livio has compiled these cases together into an intriguing narrative that helps us understand the importance of mistakes to science itself, and to how we think about it.
Mario Livio is a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, and the author of more than 400 scientific papers. On top of that, he’s also a popular science writer, author of books including The Golden Ratio, The Equation that Couldn’t Be Solved, and Is God a Mathematician? His latest book, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, Colossal Mistakes By Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, is the subject of our interview.