Science’s Brilliant Blunders: How Oops Moments Became Eurekas

A new book explores the ingenious errors of the scientific greats

  • Share
  • Read Later
Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

In 1953, the celebrated chemist Linus Pauling, already on track for a Nobel Prize for his work on chemical bonds, solved a major biochemical mystery by figuring out the structure of DNA—but his solution was utterly wrong. Later that decade, the brilliant astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who had played a major role in discovering how new elements are forged in the core of the Sun, came up with an explanation for the expanding universe. It was known as the “steady-state” theory, and while it was ingenious, it was wrong too. In the early 1900’s Lord Kelvin, one of the founders of thermodynamics, calculated the age of the Earth at 98 million years. He was off by a factor of 45 or so.

Each of these world-class scientists made whopping mistakes — and as the astrophysicist Mario Livio shows in his deeply researched and compellingly written new book Brilliant Blunders (Simon & Schuster), they weren’t alone. Darwin and Einstein, too, made significant errors. “Most people imagine that these great luminaries couldn’t possibly make mistakes,” says Livio, who holds a position at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

But they did. Some of the bloopers were perfectly understandable based on what was known at the time. Darwin, for example, like many of his contemporaries, assumed that the characteristics of two parents were “blended” in their offspring, “as in the mixing of paints,” writes Livio. Fair enough, given that the existence of genes wasn’t known at the time—except that after a few generations, the contribution of a great-grandparent or a great-great would have been so diluted that none of that ancestor’s genetic material would have been detectable in the descendants. Yet natural selection was supposed to work by having beneficial characteristics reinforced, not diluted. Oops.

(MORE: The Mysteries of Bubbles—and Clouds Too)

Other mistakes were based on a certainty bordering on arrogance. Pauling had been so successful at explaining chemical bonds and deducing the structures of proteins that he evidently became overconfident: “His model of DNA,” says Livio, “had the wrong number of strands, and it was built completely inside out from the correct model. It was also unstable, and it wasn’t even an acid”—which biochemists had already established it must be. “It took him 13 years to figure out proteins,” says Livio, “but just a month for DNA. Somehow, he became a victim of his own success.”

Fred Hoyle’s mistake wasn’t in creating the steady-state theory, which posited that new matter was constantly created to fill in the gaps as the expanding universe spread and diluted. “That was brilliant,” admits Livio, but only at first. The blunder was in holding onto that theory long after the rival Big Bang, which started with a single moment of cosmic creation, had built up overwhelming evidence in its favor.

And then there was Einstein: when he put together General Relativity, the equations told him the universe had to be expanding or contracting; it couldn’t simply be sitting there. Yet as far as anyone knew, it was. To fix things up, he added a “cosmological constant” to the equations of relativity — a sort of antigravity that kept things in perfect balance.

(MORE: Has the Missing 80% of the Universe Been Found?)

Even Einstein did not care for that idea much, but mostly for aesthetic reasons: it marred the beauty of his original equations. A decade later, he could do away with it. Astronomers found that the universe is expanding after all and Einstein banished the cosmological constant, declaring its inclusion his “greatest blunder.” But the mistake, explains Livio, was not creating the constant; it was removing it, since it turns out the cosmological constant may be real after all, in the form of what’s now known as dark energy. Einstein, however, valued simplicity in the equations too much to tolerate complexity in the cosmos, so he didn’t stick with his original theory.

It’s not clear that any great harm was done by any of these mistakes, and in fact, they often led to better science in the end. Pauling’s errors emboldened Francis Crick and James Watson to forge ahead with their own, ultimately successful search for the structure of DNA. Hoyle’s brilliant defense of the steady-state theory forced Big Bang defenders to make their case all the more carefully and persuasively. Darwin’s error might have originally held the development of evolution research back. Later in the century, however, when people began to appreciate the work Gregor Mendel had conducted with hereditary traits in pea plants, his and Darwin’s research could move ahead together, complementing and improving each other.

As for Livio himself, he admits to a few scientific errors of his own. “But there was nothing brilliant about my mistakes,” he says. “I’ve made small errors that simply convinced me to try things differently.” While he’s too modest to say so, this book is not one of them.

(MORE: Why a Hotter World Will Mean More Extinctions)