Mario Livio – Brilliant Blunders From Darwin to Einstein

June 17, 2013

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.

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This is point of inquiry from Monday, June 17th, 2013, on the show this week, Chris talks to astrophysicist Mario Livio about his latest book, Brilliant Blunders From Darwin to Einstein. Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that changed our understanding of life and the universe. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots, if you don’t already, please follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and also on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. We have a great guest for you today, Dr. Mario Livio. He’s a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute and the author of more than 400 scientific papers, 400 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 is entitled Brilliant Blunders From Darwin to Einstein. Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of life in the universe. And that’s what I wanted to talk about today. Mario Livio, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you very much for having me. You bet. So scientists getting it wrong. What made you want to write about that? 

There were several reasons, I would say. One is that, you know, I did want to show that even the greatest scientists sometimes make mistakes. It’s not just the rest of us. More importantly, however, I wanted to correct some misconception that, you know, there are many people who think that science progresses really, you know, on a direct line to the truth. And in fact, nothing can be further from the truth. Science really progresses through these very elaborate zigzag path, encountering many, many false starts, blind alleys and so on. And I wanted to therefore describe what the correct processes. 

So in other words, you’re kind of siding with I could I say the sociologists and the philosophers of science who have often sort of taken science down a notch from the idea that it’s a completely objective process? 

You know, I wouldn’t say that it takes away from the objectivity of the process so much. I mean, but it is certainly the case that blunders and in various mistakes and so on are part and parcel of the scientific process. I mean, the scientific process, the way it operates is that every theory, you know, is true until proven false. And it is at that point that we have to change our theory and and because things have to agree with experiments and observations and we don’t change the observations to comply with our theories. 

You also attempt. And I want to get into some of the cases in a second. But you attempt to sort of psychoanalyze a little bit. 

The scientists who are airing in these ways. I mean, do you feel that we’re now better able to do that as kind of historians who have neuroscience centers, Boesel? 

You know, I mean, I myself, not a psychiatrist, not a psychologist, plus all the people that I discuss are dead. So it’s not as if I could, you know, have them on a couch and ask them many questions. Nor can I put them into a functional MRI machine. So I would say, you know, what I try to do is I in a way, try to get into their minds a little bit and identify the potential causes, you know, for their errors and so on. So it’s really more from from a scientist’s perspective than from a psychologist perspective. 

I want to remind our listeners that Mario Libya’s new book, Brilliant Blunders from Darwin to Einstein, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. 

So I want to let’s start with Darwin and his blunder, and I actually learned this in college was about genetics and inheritance. And you use some interesting metaphors. He conceived of as an inheritance, sort of as the mixing together of paints, as you put it. 

So it blends and you say he should have conceived of it as the shuffling of cards. So the cards don’t ever change. They just end up in a different order. Maybe you can explain a little more what he got wrong. 

Right. So, of course, we cannot blame Darwin for not knowing genetics because nobody knew genetics at the time. So that’s not his blunder. His blunder was in not realizing that with the theory of genetics with which he was operating, namely that the characteristics indeed over the father and the mother get mixed like you would. Gin and tonic or paint. Natural selection simply would not have worked. That’s the point. Because you see, I mean, if you have, I don’t know, one dark butterfly living in a sea of white butterflies. And suppose that being dark even confers some advantage in terms of evolution. But, you know, by the time you mate and mate, then mate with all these white butterflies, you will just get get paler and paler shades of gray. And, you know, in no way that that dark butterfly will turn the entire population dark. Right. 

While if you look at the correct genetics, which Greg or Mendo suggested, which is really more like shuffling golf carts, if you have an ace and having an ace is a good thing. It doesn’t matter how much you shuffle, you still have the ace. And that’s how genetics really works. 

So you put it like this. 

It seems incredibly obvious. I mean, one thing. So the question then is how does Darwin miss this? You point out that he wasn’t exactly a math. Wisdom is one of the things we love about him is that he was sort of this kind of literary figure in a way. He was sort of a writer. He was a bit of a humanist. He wrote these wonderful things. But they were they were often qualitative, not quantitative. 

That’s right. I mean, he was really weak in math and probability theory was very, very far from him. So, you know, you originally mistakes. But later, you know, he made some interesting pronouncements which almost got him, you know, to throw the ideas off of Mendo. At one point, he even made an experiment that actually was very similar to Armando’s. You know, Mendel did experiments with peas, yellow and green peas and so on, and in Darwin did very similar experiments on me. He really just did not have the mathematical ability to conclude from that the correct theory. So, you know, once he realized there was a problem, he tried to change his theory accordingly. But this was really unsuccessful. 

Right, because then he came up with this thing called PIN Genesis. And I’m going to be frank, I don’t think that I could describe it, but it seems to me that it made things massively more complicated. 

Yeah. Okay. This is it wrong. You’re right. It and it was completely wrong. But, you know, the good news is and that’s true for all my all my blunders, is that eventually I mean, their blunders led to read breakthroughs. And eventually, you know, biologists realize that, you know, Mendelian genetics and Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection really have to go hand-in-hand for the whole thing to work with all these blunderers. 

And we’ll get on to maybe some others. It does. If you read the book and this is great about the book, you see how there were other scientists right there nipping at their heels saying, you know, starting to refute them and in some cases forcing them to grapple with the refutations. It would ultimately become the more accepted interpretations. 

So science science was working, but they didn’t seem able to. I don’t know, get to see in real time the validity of the criticisms. 

Right. For some of them, that’s true. You know, not not all of them. Every one of those scientists and, you know, the five people I discuss are Darwin and Lord Kelvin, Linus Spalding, Fred Hoyle and Albert Einstein. For each one of them, there are some differences in the blunders that they do. So in Linus Pauling case, for example, I mean, once the mistake was pointed out, he was actually quite quick to acknowledge that that was a mistake on his part and so on. But it’s true that people like Hoyle, like Calvin, you know, essentially till the day they died, they did not accept that they made a mistake. 

Let me remind listeners again that my Libya’s new book, Brilliant Blunders, is available through our website point of inquiry dot org. 

So let’s get into these cases of I guess you could call them stubbornness. Kelvyn. It was it was almost partly religious conviction, but maybe also some arrogance. 

Oh, yeah. Well, ketamine, you know, was truly probably the most prominent physicist of his day. And he had, to his credit, lots of successes. And even in this particular case, I mean, the the calculation of the age of the Earth, he was a real pioneer. You know, before him, nobody even thought, how would you even go about calculating, you know, from physics, the age of the earth? So so his calculation was was really brilliant in many ways, unfortunately, because he was somewhat stubborn and especially at older age and also, you know, partly because of his. Many successes. He did not accept the possibility that he may have overlooked something, you know, or forgotten about some process that could be operating, which you didn’t think about. You know, and so on. And in this particular case, he ignored the fact that he could be transported within the earth more efficiently than he thought by conviction. You know, by motion of fluid and so on. And that was really the nature of his blunder. 

Right. Because his his old calculation was thermodynamics. Right. It’s that, you know, basically, you know, the earth is gonna cool. You know, if something’s hot, it has to cools. You can measure how long that happens. 

Right. It’s a bit it’s a bit like in forensic, you know, when when you fire it and when they find a corpse and by measuring the temperature of the corpse, they can tell how long ago that person died. So he also realized, though, you say, OK, the earth was formed very hot and molten and it’s losing hit. So by measuring very accurately how the temperature changes with depth and using thermodynamics, I can calculate the age of the earth. 

But this one was was very Leive in Darwin’s time because it was taken as a refutation of Darwin. 

In other words, the Earth isn’t old enough for your theory of evolution by natural selection to have to have worked. 

And Kelvin was partly attached to that idea. Right. He didn’t want Darwin’s view to be true. So he was also had a bit of an ideology. Would that be fair? 

That’s correct. That is correct. Yes. I mean, that is that was perhaps his original motivation even to look into these in the first place. And, you know, he came up with an age of a hundred million years, which was way too short for Darwin’s evolution to have taken place. However, I would say that, you know, whatever Kevin’s ideological or otherwise or faith convictions were. I mean, the calculation was based on the laws of physics. I mean, he didn’t just come up, you know, with something out of thin air. 

In some ways, I find of all the errors I know you say that he he backed away from it quickly. But Linus Pauling, because you point out in the book, and this is in the race to discover the structure of DNA, which he loses to Watson and Crick, you point out in the book that he made a an error that he should have known from his own textbook. Right. I mean, he he made a kind of basic chemistry error. 

Yes, that’s right. I mean, it’s his error was in some sense amazing because, you know, he had not only had the molecule built inside out, it had three strands instead of, you know, two strands in the double helix. And it really disobeyed some basic rules of chemistry, which you would have expected for the world’s greatest chemist not to have made an error like this. But here also we have to understand the background. And I described this, of course, in great detail. I mean, appalling was just coming out from an enormous success that he had in explaining the structure of proteins. And in that success, the kind of lesson he took away from that was that his original hunch was correct. And he spent 14 years trying to test various parts of his theory. And at the end, it turns out that its original hunch was already completely correct. So when he did his model for DNA, he worked in earnest only just for about a month. And yes, he was he was aware of the fact that there were some problems, but he thought when all of those are probably, again, some details which will work themselves out once they figure it out to the main structure here. But, you know, in that case, of course, that turned out not to be the case. 

So today we have some proportion of the public. It doesn’t believe in the big bang. Still, maybe partly for religious reasons. I didn’t realize that Fred Hoyle was was also maybe he lent ammunition to this. 

Well, Fred Hoyle actually, I think maybe even in his case, he worked maybe the other way. He was a very non-religious person. And the Big Bang actually, to him sounded more, you know, like having a religious flavor to it earlier. Knows everything. Yeah. Everything so popped out of nothing in in, you know, all of a sudden. So he was much more. So his theory was that of a steady state universe that was always the same and will always be the same. So. 

Indeed. Now, he was a very, very smart man. And his theory when he proposed it was a very strong contender with a Big Bang Theory. He, by the way, coined the term Big Bang. It’s very funny that the person who coined the term Big Bang actually objected to it. But in any case, for about 15 years, you know, his theory was on equal footing. You know, I mean, it was difficult to tell which theories correct. His blunder was in the fact that even as evidence was accumulating against the steady state model, he still continued to hang onto it. 

And he hung on for, I understand a very, very word the rest of his life because the rest of his life. 

And and that’s a subtext here as well. 

What is the role of old age in all this? I got a quotation here that I just happened to know that came to mind when I read your book. It’s from Arthur C. Clarke. And I want to read it to you. Maybe you can guide our discussion. Arthur C. Clarke said when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he’s almost certainly right when he states that something is impossible. He is very probably wrong. 

Yes, I’m very familiar with this quotation, I cited it myself occasion early. I didn’t see that book. Maybe I missed it. Yeah. No, no, I don’t think I put it in the book, but I think I once tweeted this particular quotation. I think I think that Arthur C. Clarke is actually correct here. 

And there is a quotation that I do put in the book, which is from the famous physicist Max Planck, who said that what happens when you have a new theory? It’s not that you can convince all the old scientists that in the correctness of the theories, they simply die. And young scientist, you know, who already grew up hearing about this new theory, they are the ones who accept the new theory and so on. So, yes, there is an element of that. What happens in particular in cases such as Kelvin or Hoyle and so on, people who are used to success are used to being great. Most of the time, it is then difficult for them to accept to know when it is pointed out that, you know, some of their things, that they may be wrong. 

And there is another element that comes at old age, which I discussing the book, which is a very interesting one, that some of these truly great scientists, when they reach all date, somehow they they find it unsatisfying to continue to do simply incremental science, you know, very, you know, very mundane type science and so on. 

So they sometimes try to in attempting to be too original. They attempt to get into areas in which they are perhaps even not even experts. And and, you know, and then in that case, sometimes, you know, they make serious blunders or maybe even almost make fools of themselves. I mean, the case with vitamin C, with Borling, you know, is is it is a typical case of that kind where, you know, he tries to get into something new, tries to do something truly remarkable there, as opposed to continuing to do, you know, small. But OK, science, you know, and so on. 

Right. Because, I mean, I don’t know, at least nowadays, if you’re that far in your scientific career, you got, you know, postdocs to do all the boring stuff. 

Right. I mean, you know, you didn’t you don’t have to climb the ladder any more. It seems almost beneath you to be doing kind of the grunt work all the time. 

And, you know, you feel more empowered to maybe even put on your philosopher hat. I mean, they do that to try. 

That’s right. I mean, many of them do that that do. But, you know, in in in these areas, like mathematics, like theoretical physics, very often people do their best to Warwick when they’re young and they find it hard to repeat similar feats at a much older age. 

So the final character is, of course, Einstein. And I’ll just let you tell us the story of the cosmological constant. He introduced introduced it, then he got rid of it. And you say the ladder was the real blunder? 

That’s right. So, you know, when I’m spent trying to apply his theory of general relativity to the universe at large, he realized that there was a problem, at least the way he thought about it. Then he thought that the universe was static. Nothing was moving. And yet there was gravity. So everything was attracting everything else. So how could it be static? This universe would have collapsed under its own weight. So basically, in order to make the universe that deep, he introduced this cosmological constant, which created a repulsive force that at every point balanced gravity. Precisely. Now, this state in itself, by the way, was a nice idea. But in fact, it would not have worked either, because although it’s generated an equilibrium, this equilibrium was unstable, a bit like, you know, trying to balance a pencil on your finger, you know, where the slightest deviation the pencil is going to fall. In this particular case, yeah. He could balance the repulsive force with it, with an attractive gravitational force. But every slight this derivation, this universe would have either expanded or collapsed. So, so. So that was also a mistake. But in any case, he put this in. When Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding, Einstein said, well, wait a second, if the universe is expanding, I don’t need to balance gravity at every point. All the. Gravity is going to do is just going to slow down the expansion in the same way that, you know, I throw my keys up on Earth. The gravity of the earth slows down the keys, you know, and so on. So he took the term out and regretted having put it in. Well, guess what? In 1998, two groups of astronomers discovered that the expansion of our universe is, in fact, speeding up. It’s accelerating. And you know what appears to be actually propelling it to accelerate? It’s that term precisely that Einstein took out. So here he actually left it in. He could have predicted that the expansion of the universe should be accelerating. And the nature of that term actually has become now one of the main challenges of physics today. 

Right. So, yeah, that’s that’s the natural question from a non physics me is. OK. A term. So what is it? What is it? 

So we think it’s probably associated with the with the energy of empty space of the vacuum. In physics, empty space is not really empty. I mean, there are lots of virtual particles that appear and disappear in eight and so on in days. And and there is an energy associated with that. And we think that that’s the nature of that term. 

So in other words, in a way, he had a very he had on his hands. He could have had a deep insight into something that sounds like it’s out of modern physics. 

That’s right. I mean, some people are like Einstein. They’re just so smart that even when they make a mistake, I mean, it’s there is some deep insight in that. 

So I’m curious also with Einstein. Now, again, this is my layman’s understanding. But he had another blunder, as I understand it. And that was in this famous statement, God doesn’t play dice and that was him. God doesn’t play dice with the universe. He’s dismissing quantum mechanics. 

Right. Well, that’s not exactly a blunder. It’s, you know. Well, of course, it turns out that most probably he was wrong about that. And, you know, we do live in a quantum world and so on. But he he raised some very deep questions about the nature of quantum mechanics. I mean, he completely accepted the successes of quantum mechanics. But he thought that that can not be the complete picture and that maybe there is still something there that we don’t fully understand. And in fact, to this very day, you know, we struggle with very deep questions related to the foundations of quantum mechanics and so on. So, yes, it was a mistake on his part to not recognize it. 

Is this something that is our universe appears to be governed by, at least on the subatomic scale? But it was a it was out of deep thought. It was not, you know, out of some stubbornness. 

Let me remind our listeners again that Maya, Libya’s new book, Brilliant Blunders, is available through our website Point of inquiry dot org. So the big takeaway of all this, scientists are indeed mere mortals. What do we gain by knowing this or what do we gain by having you reinforce it? What do you want people to take away? 

Well, there is one very, very important point, and that is the following, that sometimes in order to make true breakthroughs, you actually need to take some calculated risks that incremental science is very important, but it’s only going to get you so far. Now, I’m not saying here, you know, that I’m advocating sloppy science. Of course you shouldn’t do that. You should do very, very careful science and test everything and so on. However, you know, we like to say about to talk about, you know, thinking outside the box. Well, guess what if when you think outside the box, you are likely to occasionally make a mistake or an even a very serious blunder. But you’re also likely to get the occasional real discovery or real breakthrough. So I would like actually all our processes in any kind of creative enterprise. I mean, beat science on any or any other thing to give a little bit more allowance to these type of risk taking. And, you know, that maybe can lead to more major breakthroughs than by just being so careful all the time that you never take any risks. 

So does this give any empowerment to an on off? 

Empowerment is the right word, but does it give any momentum to people who. Or sometimes dismissed as cranks who will say. 

You know, outside the box, I’m trying to, you know. Well, you know, many people can say they are outside the box and they are actual cracks. They should be put back in a box quickly. 

And so, like I say, I mean, you know, really, you shouldn’t take away, you know, the importance of being very careful in science and testing everything and replicating experiments. This is how the scientific method really works. But at the same time, you know, you should allow for some risk taking. I’ll give you an example with the Hubble Space Telescope, for many years when we were giving away time on the telescope at the time, allocation committee was very often encouraged to allocate up to 10 percent of the time on the telescope to what were called risky proposals. And by that I mean proposals that it wasn’t sure whether they actually can achieve their declared goals, but that if they could. There was a potential for high reward. So I would like that type of philosophy, you know, to be adopted in all areas of of creative thinking. 

Got it. Well, so just one last question for you. You, of course, are a scientist who has gone and done all of this history of science and the sort of philosophy of science amalgam, amalgamated research. So what is it? 

How does it feedback into your own science? And is it affect the way you do research to knowing about these blunders that others have made? 

So you know what? I probably have my own share of blunders, you know, over my career. I, I would not even dare to say that any of my blunders is as brilliant as some of the ones I describe in the book. But, you know, I have had occasions where I did try something new and so on, and sometimes it paid and sometimes it didn’t. 

And, you know, I think that’s the way one should do, as long as you completely understand the risk you’re taking and you still operate within the scientific method. 

OK. Well, Mario Livio, it’s been very enlightening conversation and other people can learn a lot more from the book. So thanks for being with us on Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you for having me again. 

And I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about this show, you can visit us at point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry, dot org. And you can also reach us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on Point of McQuire are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

One of Macquarie is produced by Adam Isaac in Ember’s, New York, and its music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney