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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Brilliant Blunders - Mario Livio - Review

Mistakes are portals of Discovery! Review

Mario Livio explores some of the most brilliant blunders in the history of science, but with a pinch of excessive elaboration, at least for those who are already aware of Darwin's ignorance of Mendel and Einstein's utterance about cosmological Constant.

While there are no shortage of legitimate mistakes in science , Livio focuses instead on what a handful of high-order blunders. The following are the main blunders that form the crux of this book:

1. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution conflicted with the understanding of heredity in his day: In the mid-1800's, before Mendel's experiments showed how heredity worked, scientists (including Darwin himself) believed that heredity worked by combining traits. So, for example, if you had a white moth and a black moth, if they mated then this would result in a gray moth. Unfortunately, this sort of heredity doesn't actually provide an environment in which his theory of evolution can really work, because any benefits from natural selection would eventually fade away in the background of the population.

2. Lord Kelvin's estimate of the age of the Earth: Using basic principles from physics and thermodynamics, Lord Kelvin estimated the length of time it would take for the newly-formed hot Earth to cool down into the temperature it is today. This theory assumed that there was no convection beneath the Earth's crust. His blunder is that when this was pointed out, he refused to even realistically consider that a fluid, melted core was a possibility! His prediction was drastic.

3. Linus Pauling almost discovered the double helix structure of DNA, but made a basic chemistry mistake in the model: The resulting model - created in haste in an effort to pre-empt publication by others. When Watson & Crick saw the flawed model, they rushed to get their model completed in time to beat Pauling to publication!

4. Fred Hoyle refused to abandon his steady state theory well after there was sufficient evidence to refute it: In an effort to avoid an origin predicted by the big bang theory, Fred Hoyle suggested a process of continual matter creation throughout the universe, called the steady state theory. The theory itself was perfectly reasonable when proposed, but as evidence mounted against it (such as the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation), Hoyle refused to acknowledge that his theory might be wrong and kept adjusting the theory in attempts to keep it viable.

5. Albert Einstein's introduction of the cosmological constant into general relativity: One of the first solutions to Einstein's equations of general relativity showed that it allowed for a universe that was expanding or contracting. To fit with his ideal of a static universe, Einstein introduced a term into the equation (allowed but not required by theoretical considerations) which kept the universe constant, neither expanding nor contracting. However, when Edwin Hubble discovered evidence that the universe was expanding, Einstein no longer saw it as necessary, so set the cosmological constant to 0. In 1998, evidence arose which suggested that some mysterious dark energy is causing the universe to expand, meaning that Einstein's cosmological constant may actually have a non-zero value anyway ... something that several of Einstein's peers suggested at the time. Livio also spends considerable time describing his investigation into the claim that Einstein called the introduction of the cosmological constant his "biggest blunder" ... and finds it wanting.

The book is a good narrative of these key moments in the development of science. The different blunders reveal the way science progressed and evolved.

The first part of the book, on Darwin's blunder is a bit too involved with genetics and forces a dry discussion. You must keep interest in the 'blunders' so that you pass through Kelvin's and finally reach Einstein. The later part of the book is interesting relatively and the best thing I found in this book is the 'Reference' the author has covered - a whopping >20% of the book itself!!