Path to success is paved with mistakes

BRILLIANT BLUNDERS: From Darwin to Einstein. By Mario Livio. Simon and Schuster. 341 pages. $26.

Sometimes a wrong turn is the quickest way to an unexpected but important new destination.

In his book “Brilliant Blunders,” Mario Livio makes clear that great advances in our understanding of the world around us do not generally occur in an inexorable, linear progression like a falling row of dominoes. More often than not these advances are due to one scientist carefully refuting the insightful and creative, although incomplete or incorrect, idea of another.

Livio uses five examples of errors from five of the greatest scientists the world has ever known to illustrate his point. He starts with Charles Darwin whose “survival of the fittest” theories are incomplete without the hereditary laws of Gregor Mendel. Darwin was unaware of Mendel’s discoveries without which his theories of natural selection simply would not work.

Next came Lord Kelvin, a most eminent physicist, who calculated the age of the earth as being 1/50th of the correct value.

Linus Pauling, perhaps the most influential chemist in history, came up with the triple helix turned inside out as the model for the DNA molecule. Watson and Crick got a Nobel Prize for showing that it was, in fact, a double helix.

Even though his blunder was largely due to the overconfidence that came from previous successes, his incorrect answer helped define the path to the right answer.

The remaining two scientists were Fred Hoyle and Albert Einstein.

Livio chose those five in part because they are on everyone’s short list of the greatest intellects of the past two centuries. If these folks can make large blunders, how can the rest of us do otherwise? Only by being boldly willing to be found wrong can one create something important.

Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist at Hubble Space Telescope Institute in Baltimore. He is not only an accomplished scientist in his own right, but he possesses the rare gift of being able to explain science’s achievements and puzzles to the popular reader.

The book is best described in Livio’s own words: “My objective was simple: to correct the impression that scientific breakthroughs are purely success stories. 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.”

Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier of Hanahan currently is camped on the mid-coast of Maine.