Allan Powell: Brilliance does not protect us from mistakes

August 23, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

Mario Livio, a brilliant astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, is fully qualified to write about “Brilliant Blunders.” His subtitle, “From Darwin to Einstein,” actually includes five outstanding scientists who made significant blunders. Livio is firm in pointing out that we all can make mistakes and still advance our goals. Space permits a consideration of only two who blundered, so I hope that Darwin and Einstein will be interesting.

Livio makes it clear that he is not engaged in proudly exposing flaws in order to be sensational. Rather, he wishes to present “… serious conceptual errors that could potentially jeopardize entire theories … or hold back the progress of science.” One has no doubt that Livio has a profound admiration of Charles Darwin and a deep respect for his pioneering work relative to the origin of species. He favorably quotes the opinion of Theodosius Dabzhansky (the renowned evolutionary biologist). “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” is the title of an article he wrote. 

Darwin’s theory of evolution is made of several “pillars” that combine to make up his theory: gradualism, common descent, speciation and natural selection. Livio makes a case that Darwin’s theory is jeopardized by his incomplete understanding of the mechanism activating the other pillars: natural selection. This idea supposed that, in the struggle for survival, those species with favorable traits would survive, while those lacking those traits would be eliminated.

According to Livio, Darwin did not adequately account for how these traits (variations, mutations) were passed on to future generations to secure the favorable trait for long periods of time. But, the mechanism for the continuous transmission of these “sports” or mutations was not known to Darwin. It took a contemporary of Darwin, Moravian priest Gregor Mendel, to provide the initial information opening the gate to a modern understanding of inheritance.

Darwin’s “blunder” was not fatal to the eventual success and acceptance of his theory of evolution. Future scientists filled the gap left by Darwin. Darwin’s omissions came about because he took no interest in math, which he disliked. Nonetheless, he compensated for this with his powers of observation and thought.

When we consider “brilliant blunders” with respect to Einstein, we need to deal with two issues. First, did he actually make the statement that one of his ideas “was the biggest blunder he made in his entire life?” Second, what idea was at issue when the alleged “blunder” was made? The story begins in 1917 when Einstein was writing some thoughts about the cosmos and proposed the opinions that the cosmos was unchanging and static in its larger operations. In doing so, he introduced a novel term — “cosmological constant” — to indicate “a static, eternal, homogeneous and unchanging universe.” At that point in time, the size of the cosmos did not go beyond our galaxy — the Milky Way — even for the learned.

This concept was about to collide with the new discoveries (now accepted by scientists) that the universe is expanding and that a surprising number of galaxies exist. The discoveries of Georges Lemaitre and Edwin Hubble made it necessary for Einstein to alter his perspective. He made the wise opinion that “conviction is a good motive but a bad judge.” Moreover, in 1932, Einstein wrote: “It now appears that in the dynamical case this end can be reached without the introduction of (the Greek symbol for constant or cosmological constant).”

Livio must be commended for his patient and strenuous efforts to uncover the true state of affairs about Einstein’s “blunder.” He finally concluded that a friend deliberately exaggerated a much milder sentence. 

Einstein has earned much deserved respect for his genius, not only for recognizing the need to adapt when new evidence requires an alteration but for his genius in creating new conceptions of natural events. Einstein was a firm believer in the principle of parsimony: Of two or more rival hypotheses, always choose the simpler. 

Biographies of brilliant people make it clear that, while they have superior gifts, they also make mistakes. In addition, they might possess personality traits that are odd. But, they also appear to be driven to be creative. In science, mistakes may actually pave the way to discovery. Livio concludes his splendid book with a quotation made by German philosopher Gotthold Lessing: “The aspiration to truth is more precious than its assured possession.” 

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.



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