Scientist Linus Pauling once told a colleague, “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 a lot 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.”
That premise is at the heart of Mario Livio’s “Brilliant Blunders” (Simon & Schuster, 341 pages, $26), a book that scientifically proves that intellectually normal folk aren’t the only ones who, in Pauling’s words, “make a fool” of ourselves. I don’t know about you, but that certainly takes a load off my mind.
Consider Pauling, one of only two people who own Nobel Prizes in different fields, chemistry and peace. (The other was Marie Curie, who won for chemistry and physics.)
Among his many achievements was the discovery of the actual structure of protein, a single or alpha helix. “He didn’t introduce the concept of helical” — others had done so — but he got it right, and his work “made it mainstream.”
His “blunder” occurred later when he went on to study the structure of genes and became convinced that DNA took the form of a triple helix. That conclusion was wrong, but it served as a catalyst that allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to return to the DNA modeling that ultimately uncovered the double helix structure of DNA.
A surprising number of mistakes were made by some of the biggest names of science: Darwin, Einstein and Kelvin, among others.
You don’t have to be a science scholar to appreciate this book. Certainly it helps if you can wrap your mind around concepts such as gravity bending light, but for the most part Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, does a good job of avoiding tech-speak.
Of course, occasionally that becomes unavoidable, but just when you believe your eyes will glaze over, he writes, presumably with tongue planted firmly in cheek: “I realize that readers who may be a bit rusty on their general relativity would welcome a refresher course, so here is a very brief review of the core principles involved.”
He also notes: “You can judge whether a scientific theory has had an impact by the vehemence with which the heavyweights with something at stake announce their objections to it.”
“Brilliant Blunders” shows that while scientists make mistakes, they ultimately get things right. And we’d better start paying attention.
Curt Schleier is a freelance book critic in New Jersey.