Even brilliant people make mistakes and in his new book Brilliant Blunders (Simon & Schuster, May 14, 2013), Mario Livio discusses five of the biggest scientific mishaps.
Livio is an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. He discusses how the road to brilliant discoveries often contain a few mistakes, and how these mistakes can shape the scientific community.
Here are Livio's selections for the five biggest scientific blunders.
1. Kelvin's estimate of the Earth's age
Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, used physics to calculate the ages of the sun and Earth in the 19th century, making him the first person to do so. His calculations were off by about 50 times, however, because he didn't take into account the unknown mechanisms that might have transported heat through the Earth. "Kelvin was used to being right far too many times," Livio said. "It was pointed out to him but he never really accepted it."
2. Pauling's Triple Helix
In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick famously discovered the double helix structure of DNA. Brilliant chemist Linus Pauling also proposed a structure that same year, but his featured three intertwining strands instead of two. Because he found a structure model for proteins, Pauling was perhaps a bit overconfident. "He fell to a large extent victim to his own success," Livio said.
3. Darwin's notion of heredity
Charles Darwin's 1959 theory of natural selection was certainly brilliant, but he missed a key point in his idea of heredity, where it was commonly believed that, among two parents, a child would receive a blend of both parents' traits. It wasn't until the early 20th century that the idea of Mendelian inheritance came along and the idea was more clearly understood.
4. Hoyle's Big Bang
Even when Hoyle coined the term for what we now accept as the start of the universe "the Big Bang," he remained committed to his own theory, the "steady state" model. The model suggested that the universe has always been in the same state and will always remain so. He never relented, even when the Big Bang theory was generally accepted.
5. Einstein's cosmological constant
Even Einstein made mistakes, and in 1916 he introduced the cosmological constant into his general theory of relativity. He did so to help explain what he believed to be a static universe. We now know that the universe is expanding, and Einstein came to regret the decision, removing the cosmological constant from his equations. But since then, scientists have reintroduced the constant, finding it a necessary part of the formulas. "His real blunder was to take it out, not to keep it in," Livio said. "The theory allowed him to put it in. We've since learned that everything the theory allows appears to be compulsory."