Even geniuses make mistakes
Author of 'Brilliant Blunders' reveals how scientists like Einstein and Darwin made mistakes that lead to breakthroughs.
People often think of scientific progress as a straight line. But unbeknownst to many science admirers and action movie directors, scientists take twists and turns along the way to new ideas. Behind famous discoveries lie mountains of mistakes.
Israeli scientist Mario Livio, a prize-winning astrophysicist and author, explored how Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Fred Hoyle, Linus Pauling and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) thought about the ideas that led them to some of humanity's greatest achievements. He found that all of them made mistakes along the way.
"Genius has some sort of an image that these are people who are never wrong, that everything they say is correct," Livio told From the Grapevine. "They don’t make the same type of mistakes that the rest of us do." In his book "Brilliant Blunders," Livio explains that this image just isn't real. Geniuses mess up.
Albert Einstein once made an error and missed the opportunity to figure out that the universe was expanding. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Albert Einstein himself made plenty of wrong guesses about the basic forces that controlled the universe. It was a good thing he did, because though many of his ideas turned out to be incorrect, they paved the way toward new ways of thinking about physics. A fellow physicist said that Einstein always thought fudging his own equations was his biggest blunder. But perhaps it was a necessary one.
Einstein's brain (which admittedly went through a lot) wasn't the only one to make mistakes. English astronomer Fred Hoyle, who made discoveries about atom formation, coined the phrase "The Big Bang" ... while he was sarcastically dismissing the theory. The name stuck; his objections did not.
Meanwhile, Scotch-Irish physicist Lord Kelvin completely miscalculated the age of the Earth and the sun because he didn't realize that different parts of the planet cooled at different rates. But that didn't stop him from making discoveries about thermodynamics, helping bring together various ideas in physics and making us speak about temperatures in "kelvins."
Not that everyone trying to make discoveries should make every mistake possible. Livio thinks that certain types of mistakes, such as those out of sloppiness or inexperience, should be avoided. But anyone trying to make creative discoveries needs to think outside the box, and often that means being wrong.
"Progress in science is a very zigzag path, where you encounter lots of blind alleys," Livio explained. "Blunders are in some sense part and parcel of scientific discovery."
A poem inspired Lord Kelvin to study science. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Livio thinks this outlook is important for all disciplines.
"One of the things I wanted to correct in this book is not just our perception of genius," Livio told From the Grapevine, "but also our perception of what our progress in science or any creative genius is."
Livio thinks that this worldview should make us reconsider how we think about mistakes, especially at school and at work.
"We have grown into a society that does not tolerate mistakes," Livio pointed out. Multiple-choice tests, for instance, create the perception that a person's thinking isn't important – only the final correct answer matters.
"In multiple choice, the answer is either right or wrong, and that’s it," Livio continued. "But it's possible that the student was thinking in interesting ways, even if he or she got the wrong result at the end."
While multiple-choice tests might be easy to grade, they don't do a great job of training minds for creative thought.
"You cannot make blunders that are brilliant all the time," Livio said.
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