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Q&A With Astrophysicist Mario Livio on Brilliant Blunders


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A good friend recently asked her social circle for any words of wisdom for her soon-to-be-a-high-school-graduate daughter, with an eye towards presenting said daughter with a book collecting all that wisdom on the special day. My own offering was to advocate learning to embrace failure. Failure, after all, is how we learn. And how we respond to our failures often shapes us throughout our lives, influencing the people we ultimately become. It’s a lesson I learned far too late in life, well out of high school, when I started training in jujitsu. (The martial arts, especially for a beginner, are pretty much all about learning through failure.)

Science, too, is predicated upon failure; even our greatest minds make mistakes — far more, in fact, than the much-touted successes. Astrophysicist Mario Livio’s new book, Brilliant Blunders: Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, explores the vital role of error in the scientific process, using five very famous scientists to illustrate his points: Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and (natch) Albert Einstein. Wrestling with their blunders is what helps scientists make (eventually) revolutionary breakthroughs . “The development of science is not a direct march to the truth,” Livio writes. “If not for false starts and blind alleys, scientists would be traveling for too long down many wrong paths.”

Q.  What makes a scientific blunder brilliant, as opposed to just plain wrong?

A: Any blunder that is the result of sloppy, or not sufficiently careful science, is not brilliant. The failure of one of the spacecrafts to Mars, because of inconsistencies in the units used (metric and British) was definitely not brilliant. The relatively recent announcement of the discovery of bacteria whose DNA was supposed to be  based on arsenic rather than  phosphorus, on the basis of a rather careless experiment, was also not brilliant.

Q. You champion risk taking and thinking outside the box as a critical factor in scientific progress, and your book gives five excellent historical examples of how doing so can lead to breakthrough discoveries. Yet sometimes risk-taking is not as encouraged as it might be in the modern scientific enterprise.  How can we ensure scientists continue to have the freedom to be truly innovative? And who are some modern examples of brilliant blunderers?

A: Usually in a funding-starved atmosphere, and h-index-driven culture, risk taking is not particularly encouraged. This situation could be improved, however, with ideas such as the following. For a good number of years, time allocation committees for the highly-oversubscribed Hubble Space Telescope, have been encouraged to allocate up to 10% of the observing time to “risky” proposals. These were proposals in which it wasn’t obvious that the stated goals can actually be achieved, but where there was a potential for high return. I think that more evaluation processes should adopt such a philosophy.

CREDIT: Simon & Schuster/STScI

There are many modern discoveries that were at some level the consequence of serendipity, or initial blunders. Some of the better known examples are penicillin, and post-it notes. In general, a large fraction of the discoveries of new medications is the result of serendipity or, to some extent, “brilliant” blunders.

Q. I was intrigued by your research clearing astronomer Edwin Hubble from allegations of censoring another scientist’s work: Georges Lemaitre. Can you tell us a little about it, and how you found the truth of the matter?

A: Lemaitre published (in French) a paper in 1927, in which he noticed that data taken by astronomer Vesto Slipher suggested a linear relation between the recession velocity of galaxies and their distances, and he suggested that the universe was expanding. For the distances he used an approximate relation between galaxy brightness and distance. He also computed what we call today  a “Hubble constant” of about 625 km/s/Mpc.

In 1929, Hubble published his famous paper about the expansion of the universe, and he obtained a value of about 500km/s/Mpc (he never mentioned Lemaitre’s paper). In 1931, the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society asked Lemaitre for permission to publish an English translation of his 1927 paper, and they did. However, in the translation,  the paragraph talking about the Hubble constant and some notes, were missing.

In 2011 a few science historians suggested that Hubble may have censored Lemaitre’s paper, to defend his priority. I decided to look into this, went to London, and went over the entire correspondence of the Royal Astronomical Society around those years, and I discovered a letter of Lemaitre, in which he explains that he did the translation, and he decided to omit a few details which were no longer of “current” interest (since Hubble did a better job at determining distances and the relation).  Thus, while I definitely think that Lemaitre should share the credit for discovering the expansion of the universe, Hubble did not censor Lemaitre’s paper.

4. Over the course of your own scientific career, what has been your most notable brilliant blunder?

A: I think that most of my blunders have not been particularly brilliant. However, early on in my career, a certain astronomer suggested that the central stars of six planetary nebulae were really binary stars. This was the first time something like that has been suggested. Intrigued by this, I started working on a theory of how these systems are formed, and what the indications might be for the shaping of the planetary nebulae. As it turned out, none of those central stars actually were binaries. However, as astronomers made better observations, many other planetary nebulae were discovered to have close binary nuclei. Thus, the theory that I have developed for the wrong objects turned out to be useful after all.

Q. You’ve covered the golden ratio, the accelerating universe, and other heady ideas in your books. What will you be tackling for your next book? And what is the scientific research/topic most piquing your interest these days?

A: I honestly don’t know yet what my next popular book will be about. As for scientific topics that I find really exciting right now, probably the two areas that intrigue mr the most are the nature of dark energy (and whether or not we really have to go the route of the multiverse to explain its value), and the search for complex life in extrasolar planets. I can only hope that at least  one of these problems will be solved during my lifetime.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. David Cummings 6:53 am 05/29/2013

    Similarities in Lemaitre/Hubble and Wallace/Darwin?

    Link to this

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