Science

Five great scientists with flawed vision

 

The blunders committed by the five geniuses profiled in this book should make us lesser beings feel better about ourselves. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who writes popular science with Asimovian accessibility, doesn’t want to bring these men down. He couldn’t if he tried. They are gods to the godless, quasi-worshipped by the Sheldon Coopers of the world for their phenomenal contributions to their respective fields. But knowledge, Livio reminds us, transcends any one individual. It is relentless; in time it overcomes all obstacles, including the shortcomings of the very people dedicated to its advancement.

Brilliant Blunders opens with Charles Darwin, the bane of anti-intellectual fundamentalists. Fittingly, he lies near Isaac Newton at Westminster. Like Newton, he altered the way we see nature. Before he arrived, immutability was the watchword of biologists. Species did not evolve, they were ever thus, designed by a benevolent deity. Darwin showed conclusively that we are a work in progress millions of years in the making. But his initial explanation for heredity was off. Fortunately, Gregor Mendel’s experiments with garden peas provided the missing piece in the evolutionary puzzle before opponents could exploit Darwin’s mistake and undermine his new theory.

Other groundbreakers were not spared embarrassment. Lord Kelvin, also buried near Newton, was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 19th century. But this stubborn Victorian insisted that the Earth was only 100 million years old despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The astronomer Fred Hoyle likewise suffered from cognitive dissonance with regard to the Big Bang, a term he coined on a 1949 BBC radio program. The universe is in a steady state, he declared, and therefore cannot be expanding. Interestingly, Kelvin and Hoyle were critical of Darwin; each in his own way objected to the idea of unstoppable change.

This was not Linus Pauling’s problem. In the early 1950s, he was poised to crack the genetic code. James Watson and Francis Crick were afraid Pauling, already a living legend, would beat them. But when he unveiled his triple-helix model, they could not believe their eyes: the foremost chemist on the planet had gotten the basic chemistry wrong! DNA is in the shape of a double helix, of course. What happened? Livio suggests that Pauling’s political activities, such as his anti-nuclear activism, may have distracted him.

We conclude with Einstein, whose cosmological constant, an offshoot of the theory of relativity, was another stab at limiting our understanding of the universe. Einstein didn’t have to wait to be disproven, however; he did it himself, the mark of a secure ego. Politicians and scientists should heed his words: “Conviction is a good motive, but a bad judge!”

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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