Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review: Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio

Science is not as concrete as we believe it to be. What we know today as fact was once only theory. Only through the evaluation of those premises, conclusions, and so called “facts” can society continue to develop its scientific beliefs. Brilliant Blunders highlights those major miscalculations by great scientific thinkers that led to other discoveries and truths even though that was not the scientist’s intention.

Let us consider Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity that proposes objects move in relation to each other in time creating the space-time continuum that still holds true today. He also proposed a concept called dark energy. He later removed the theory calling it a mistake. A problem resulted when other researchers confirmed that it actually exists. NASA currently believes that dark energy constitutes most of our universe and Einstein was right.

Science is on its own continuum of development. Mistakes are rarely accidental and require significant learned skill to make correctly. For example, the incorrect model of DNA proposed by Linus Pauling was wrong but also helped to develop a better model of DNA. The same can be said of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The incorrect models of thinking were leaps in intellectual advancement that helped others to think differently.

Science is about putting forward a hypothesis, model and theory. They are all only explanations that can change over time as new discoveries are found. A hypothesis is tested to create a model and models are used to develop theories. A model is the physical representation of a theory and is used to generate a theory. Sometimes models are derived from a theory to test the validity of that theory.

People propose ideas and concepts and these may not always be correct. However, as they move through the scientific method they also develop affirmations and negations that can be used in other theories. Science is an additive process whereby each study helps lend support or remove support for concepts until a predominant theory takes hold. Blunders are part of that process of learning.

The book helps scientists understand that there is no such thing as a mistake as some of the greatest discoveries in the world are mistakes. Mistakes add to the body of knowledge and this body of knowledge makes its way slowly into the collective intelligence. Such knowledge is then used to advance practical concerns in the business and civilian world. If you want to understand how to make a mistake the right way read this book.

Livio, M. (2013). Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein-Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. Simon and Schulster, NY. ISBN 9781439192368

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