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Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe (Anglais) Relié – 6 juin 2013

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Brilliant Blunders



Throughout the entire period that I have been working on this book, every few weeks someone would ask me what my book was about. I developed a standard answer: “It is about blunders, and it is not an autobiography!” This would get a few laughs and the occasional approbation “What an interesting idea.” My objective was simple: to correct the impression that scientific breakthroughs are purely success stories. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is the road to triumph paved with blunders, but the bigger the prize, the bigger the potential blunder.

Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, wrote famously, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” In the time that has passed since the publication of his The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), we have made impressive progress in understanding the former; considerably less so, in my humble opinion, in elucidating the latter. It is apparently much more difficult to make life or mind comprehensible to itself. Nevertheless, the life sciences in general—and the research into the operation of the human brain in particular—are truly picking up speed. So it may not be altogether inconceivable after all that one day we will even fully understand why evolution has concocted a sentient species.

While this book is about some of the remarkable endeavors to figure out life and the cosmos, it is more concerned with the journey than with the destination. I tried to concentrate on the thought process and the obstacles on the way to discovery rather than on the achievements themselves.

Many people have helped me along the way, some maybe even unknowingly. I am grateful to Steve Mojzsis and Reika Yokochi for discussions on topics related to geology. I thank Jack Dunitz, Horace Freeland Judson, Matt Meselson, Evangelos Moudrianakis, Alex Rich, Jack Szostak, and Jim Watson for conversations on chemistry, biology, and specifically on Linus Pauling’s work. I am indebted to Peter Eggleton, John Faulkner, Geoffrey Hoyle, Jayant Narlikar, and Lord Martin Rees for helpful discussions on astrophysics and cosmology, and on Fred Hoyle’s work.

I would also like to express my gratitude to all the people who provided me with invaluable materials for this book, and in particular to: Adam Perkins and the staff of the Cambridge University Library, for materials on Darwin and on Lord Kelvin; Mark Hurn of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, for materials on Lord Kelvin and on Fred Hoyle; Amanda Smith of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, for materials on Fred Hoyle and for processing photos related to Watson and Crick; Clifford Meade and Chris Petersen of the Special Collections Department of Oregon State University, for materials on Linus Pauling; Loma Karklins of the Caltech Archives, for material on Linus Pauling; Sarah Brooks from the Nature Publishing Group, for material on Rosalind Franklin; Bob Carswell and Peter Hingley for materials on Georges Lemaître from the Royal Astronomical Society; Liliane Moens of the Archives Georges Lemaître, for materials on Georges Lemaître; Kathryn McKee of St. John’s College, Cambridge, for materials on Fred Hoyle; and Barbara Wolff of the Albert Einstein Archives, Diana Kormos Buchwald of the Einstein Papers Project, Daniel Kennefick of the University of Arkansas, Michael Simonson of the Leo Baeck Institute, Christine Lutz of Princeton University, and Christine Di Bella of the Institute for Advanced Study for materials on Einstein.

Special thanks are due to Jill Lagerstrom, Elizabeth Fraser, and Amy Gonigam of the Space Telescope Science Institute, and to the staff at the Johns Hopkins University Library for their continuous bibliographic support. I am grateful to Sharon Toolan for her professional help in preparing the manuscript for print, to Pam Jeffries for skillfully drawing some of the figures, and to Zak Concannon for cleaning some of the figures. As always, my most patient and supportive ally has been my wife, Sofie.

Finally, I thank my agent, Susan Rabiner, for her relentless encouragement; my editor, Bob Bender, for his thoughtful comments; Loretta Denner, for her assistance during copyediting; and Johanna Li, for her dedication during the entire production of this book.

Revue de presse

“Mario Livio sets the discoveries of five great scientists who were also remarkable personalities in their social context, showing how they emerged from confusion and controversy. His archival research allows him to debunk several myths that have been given currency through less thorough biographies. You don’t need to be a scientist to be fascinated by this scholarly, insightful and beautifully written book.” (Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and author of From Here to Infinity: A Vision for the Future of Science)

“After reading Livio's account, I look on the history of science in a new way. In every century and every science, I see brilliant blunders.” (Freeman Dyson The New York Review of Books)

"Scientists make mistakes all the time, but those bumps in the road are often smoothed out in the legends that surround the greatest discoverers. . . . Thoughtful, well-researched and beautifully written, Brilliant Blunders offers a distinctive — and far more truthful — perspective on the journey to scientific discovery." (Marcia Bartusiak The Washington Post)

“Enlightening. . . . For many people, being a great scientist means being above error. . . . Livio’s book is a valuable antidote to this skewed picture. . . . Thanks to his deep curiosity, Livio turns Brilliant Blunders into a thoughtful meditation on the course of science itself." (Carl Zimmer The New York Times Book Review)

"Elegant, entertaining, and instructive." (Andrew Robinson The Lancet)

“It is said that genius is the ability to make all possible mistakes in the least amount of time. Livio’s genius is to show us just how much those mistakes have taught us.” (Adam Riess, Thomas Barber Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, Nobel Laureate in Physics 2011)

“Taking risks is part of genius, and genius is not immune to bloopers. Mario Livio's Brilliant Blunders leads us through the circumstances that surrounded famous gaffes. . . . Mr. Livio helps us see that such spectacular errors are opportunities rather than setbacks.” (Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health)

“Mario Livio wears many hats: scientist, sleuth, storyteller. In Brilliant Blunders, a delightful intellectual synthesis, he reminds us that he’s also one of the best science writers in our galaxy.” (Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of X)

“In Brilliant Blunders, Mario Livio leaves no historical detail untold, as we re-walk the error-filled pathways along which human understanding of the universe slowly emerged.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History, and author of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier)

Mr. Livio is a gifted storyteller. . . .[He] shows how science works partly by feeding on past mistakes: Once recognized, the errors sparked creativity in other scientists. An incorrect view of the world is not simply a mistake; it's a catalyst that leads to better understanding." (Samuel Arbesman The Wall Street Journal)

"At last we have a book specifically devoted to scientific mistakes. . . . For someone who wants the whole story, Livio's book is a page turner." (Donald Simanek Physics Today)

“One of the most important things that distinguishes science from religion is that in science we (eventually) are happy to change our minds. This is called learning. As Mario Livio eloquently describes in this far-reaching and thoroughly enlightening book, many famous scientific advances involved either false starts or dead ends. In my own field, Einstein is purported to have said that inserting the cosmological constant into his equations of General Relativity was his ‘biggest blunder.’ In hindsight, as we find ourselves living in a Universe whose future may be determined by this quantity, most of us would now pay our eye teeth to have made such blunder!” (Lawrence M. Krauss, Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration)

“Entertaining accounts of how five celebrated scientists went wrong. . . . An absorbing, persuasive reminder that science is not a direct march to the truth.” (Kirkus Reviews)

"Astrophysicist Livio unmasks the flaws in the work of some of our greatest scientific minds in this meditation on the winding, unpredictable path of discovery." (Anna Kuchment Scientific American)

"Livio's usual knack at making sophisticated concepts accessible has been brought to bear on his book. . . . What comes through clearly, as is one of the author's stated intentions, is that errors are part and parcel of the process and that science progresses, not always despite them, but also through them. . . . With its illustrious characters, interesting ideas and those blunders to marvel at, the book makes a fascinating read." (Marianne Freiberger Plus magazine)

"Wide ranging and entertaining, Brilliant Blunders might be picked up by readers who have been fooled into doing so by the notion of blunders, but they will certainly enjoy it for its brilliance." (Robert Schaefer New York Journal of Books)

"[Mario Livio is ] one of my favorite authors." (Dan Brown)

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. . . . 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." (Ariel Gonzalez The Miami Herald)

"You don’t have to be a science scholar to appreciate this book. . . . Brilliant Blunders shows that while scientists make mistakes, they ultimately get things right. And we’d better start paying attention." (Curt Schleier Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

"Countless scientists have made major mistakes over the centuries, but Livio wisely focuses on gaffes from just five great minds: Pauling, Darwin, Einstein, astrophysicist Fred Hoyle and William Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin. . . . Though Livio can only speculate on the reasons behind these errors, his clear and compelling writing reinforces the important contributions each of these men made to their fields. . . . Livio’s ultimate message is that blunders — even big ones — can play a role in scientific discovery." (Allison Bohac ScienceNews)

“The stories of how these blunders came about, and what happened next, are extremely well researched, and they shed a welcome, informative, entertaining and sometimes new light on science as a deeply human activity.” (Len Fisher Physics World)

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 134 commentaires
28 internautes sur 28 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Decent Read, Deceptive Title 11 mars 2014
Par Amazon Customer - Publié sur
Format: Relié
I'm a big fan of non-fiction science books, and in particular, books about science history. This book is really very average. It lacks focus, discussing the works of various scientists, but there is little connection between the scientists chosen.

More importantly, for a book entitled "Brilliant Blunders," the book really isn't about scientific blunders. The discussion of any of these scientist's "blunders" is minimal. The mistakes get only passing mention in a much more thorough description of their general achievements

So while it was a good read, I'm a bit turned off that the title seems intentionally designed to grab the reader's attention and to make the book sound like an interesting, and possibly sensational read, when in fact, it is really just a run of the mill book chronicling the history achievements of a few select scientists.
48 internautes sur 54 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A delightful, entertaining, and informative book. 14 mai 2013
Par Craig Matteson - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Science, at its best, is a systematic and unrelenting search for understanding about reality. However, since it is conducted by human beings, the path to that understanding can take twists and turns and even the best scientists can get tripped up along the way. This book examines five of the greatest scientists of the past century and a half and how, despite their brilliance and success, they stumbled a bit. And each in his own way.

I think this is a valuable book because the author, Mario Livio, is telling serious stories about real science but keeps everything fresh, interesting, and moving along. The stories never pander to the reader or become so laden with jargon that we general readers become lost. This is a very tricky problem for a science author. How to write for the general public in ways that are inviting without being superficial. How can a real scientist provide a book that is both inviting and informative without being too heavy so that the book ends up being something only a specialist can enjoy. This author seems to be blessed with that wonderful and rare mix of scientific expertise, broad scientific and historical knowledge, and the ability to tell stories that make the reader want to keep turning the pages without even suspecting he or she is learning something quite valuable. You know, like a great cook that can make kids want to eat their vegetables.

This terrific book introduces us to many of the towering scientific figures of the past two centuries by focusing on the work and lives of five particularly important pillars of science: Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. Each triumphed in his own unique way, and each stumbled for a different reason. Since I am far beyond the age of hero worship, human frailty upsets me much less than it did when I was young and still hoping for perfection in my heroes. In my view, we should enjoy each triumph and be grateful to these men for their successes and contributions and use their mistakes as cautionary tales in our own lives. As I read this book I recalled the words of one flawed philosopher I read as a young man: "the errors of great men are more valuable than the truths of little men". This book is a great example of this idea.

I don't want to reveal the punch lines of the book because that is the fun of reading it. But each of the "blunders" - as in chess not as in a ridiculous mistake that, say, I would likely make in pursuing such scientific work - came about for different reasons. I think Livio gets most of his judgments of these men right, but I think he is far too harsh on Lord Kelvin. If the fashions of our time seem to value him less than they did in his, that may well be our fault more than his. What we value says a lot about us and somewhat less about the thing we judge. Just because the popularity of, say, Beethoven has receded a bit since my childhood says a lot more about our times and culture than it does about Beethoven doesn't it? The author brings up his definition of blunder by bringing up Bobby Fischer's famous awful move in game one of his match with Spassky. Livio ascribes it to chess blindness. But one Australian chess analyst, CJS Purdy, wrote a book on the match where he convincingly shows, at least to me, that Fischer's "wrong" move was wrong because he made the right move out of sequence. Purdy thought that Fisher was looking eight or so moves ahead and simply grabbed the wrong piece and made that move in the sequence too early. I think that changes the nature of that blunder, if true. Because it would be a distraction or sequencing problem rather than "blindness".

And if I want to pick some mighty small nits, I would point out that Livio's language can get careless once in a while. For example, he essentially makes fun of people who see design in nature while, a few sentences later, talking about genes experimenting. This is silly. Make your language one thing or the other. If you are going to use common metaphors, let the common people alone. Professional fighters don't make their reputation beating up on the average Joe. I do not think that books written for a popular audience should cheat by smearing others and telling people how they should regard those ideas and what to think about them. You win by serious argument and reasoning not by sarcasm and sneering disregard. If you don't have time or space in your book to make the argument you should not have time or space to be rude and cheap either.

But that tiny little difference aside, I think this book is wonderful and very much worth reading by all ages and all educational levels after having some basic introduction to science and history. I also think that people with deep education and background in science will enjoy the telling of these stories, as well.

Get the book. Read it. Enjoy it. Learn. And, using this as a springboard, go dig deeper and learn some more.

Reviewed by Craig Matteson, Saline, MI
20 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
How and why the blunders described in this book "have all, some way or another, acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs" 14 mai 2013
Par Robert Morris - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) was a French astronomer and mathematician, widely viewed today as one of the greatest scientists of all time. What intrigues me most about him are his mistakes from which he and others learned valuable lessons. There is a brief reference to him in Brilliant Blunders (on Page 74) as Mario Livio discusses research by William Thomas (Lord Kelvin): To calculate the Sun's age, "he borrowed elements from theories for the formulation of the solar system proposed by the French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant." Livio's purpose in the book is to cite various "momentous blunders in a wide range of disciplines" that proved "brilliant" because they helped to advance substantially the progress of scientific knowledge. As Livio explains, "I hope to demonstrate that the road to discovery and innovation can be constructed even through the unlikely path of blunders made by Lord Kelvin as well as by Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein.

What we have in this immensely entertaining as well as informative book is a rigorous examination of various "colossal mistakes by great scientists that changed our understanding of life and the universe...As I hope to show, the analysis of these blunders forms a living body of knowledge that is not only captivating in its own right but also can guide actions in domains ranging from scientific practices to ethical behavior. The second reason is simple: The topics of life, of the Earth, and of the universe have intrigued humans -- not just scientists -- since the dawn of civilization, and have inspired tireless quests to uncover their origins and out past."

For example, consider these: Darwin's blunder was in not realizing the full implications of a particular hypothesis describing evolution and natural selection; Kelvin blundered by ignoring unforeseen possibilities; Pauling's blunder was the result of overconfidence bred by previous success; Hoyle erred in his obstinate advocacy of dissent from mainstream science; and Einstein failed because of a misguided sense of what constitutes simplicity. Livio discusses each of these within their historical as well as scientific context. All have, in one way or another, "acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs - hence their description as 'brilliant blunders.' They served as agents that lifted the fog through which science was progressing, in its usual succession of small steps occasionally punctuated by quantum leaps."

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of Livio's coverage.

o Natural Selection (Pages 26-36)
o Darwin's Blunder and the Seeds of Genetics (41-44)
o The Earth and Life Gain a History (64-67)
o Global Cooling (67-79)
o On the Feeling of Knowing (96-102)
o Life's Blueprint (114-120)
o The Triple Helix (131-135)
o Anatomy of a [Pauling's] Blunder (137-144)
o And God Said, "Let There Be Hoyle" (169-183)
o Cosmic Expansion: Lost (in Translation) and Found (189-198)
o From the Largest to the Smallest Scales (247-252)
o The Accelerating Universe (252-256)
o Anthropic Reasoning (256-264)
o Mistakes of Genius (266-268)

The best works of non-fiction tend to be research-driven and that is certainly true of this one, as indicated by its abundant Notes (Pages 273-302) and comprehensive Bibliography (303-323). When concluding his book, Mario Livio observes, "Despite their blunders, and perhaps even [begin italics] because [end italics] of them, the five individuals I have followed and sketched in this book have produced not just innovations within their respective sciences but also truly great intellectual creations. Unlike many scientific works that target only professionals from within the same discipline as their audience, the oeuvres of these masters have crossed the boundaries between science and general culture. The impact of their ideas has been felt far beyond their immediate significance for biology, geology, physics, or chemistry. In this sense, the work of Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein comes closer in spirit to achievements in literature, art, and music -- both cut a broad swath across erudition."

When Einstein's collaborator, Leopold Infeld, noted that several of Einstein's original ideas were antiquated if not even wrong, he added, "it is one more instance showing how a wrong solution of a fundamental problem may be incomparably more important than a correct solution of a trivial, uninteresting problem." We are well-advised to consider, also, an observation by a 12th century French monk, Bernard of Chartres: "We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants." That is true of those who read this book but also true of the great scientists who are discussed in it.
11 internautes sur 13 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Worth Knowing: Even Great Minds Make Mistakes 29 juillet 2013
Par Timothy Haugh - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
Mr. Livio has written very readable books on math and science in the past; however, this book on "colossal mistakes by great scientists that changed our understanding of the universe" may be the best of what he's written so far. There is a joy and verve in his writing here that is beyond what he's done before. This makes for a book that is not only interesting but also a pleasure to read.

Granted, he's chosen a particularly good topic: mistakes made by huge names in science--Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein. He handles it in an atypical way, however. Instead of using their well-known "blunders" to find a backdoor into criticism of these men as others have done in the past, Mr. Livio shows how the mistakes of great scientists often make perfect sense. In addition, he shows how these mistakes often open the door for others to make important breakthroughs.

Consider Kelvin, often the poster child in scientific circles for someone who achieves much in his youth but then becomes hardened into his positions in old age even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Kelvin believed that the age of the earth could be no more than a few million years despite the fact that geological and evolutionary data during his lifetime indicated that the earth had to be much, much older. But what people often fail to understand about Kelvin is that he based his belief on thermodynamic calculations, calculations on which he was the acknowledged expert. More subtly, those people who threw the evidence of geology and biology and newly discovered radioactivity in his face often did not understand that even if their evidence spoke about the age of the earth, no known mechanism could account for the age of the sun which Kelvin had also calculated to be only a few millions years. In fact, it would be many decades before nuclear fusion would be understood well enough to determine that the age of the sun could also be billions of years and synch up with the assumed age of the earth. Kelvin based his mistake on calculable physics and, mistake though it may have been and intransigent as he certainly was, it encouraged other scientists to do significant work to refute him.

Livio makes similar work of Darwin's understanding of inheritable traits, Pauling's work on the structure of DNA, Hoyle's refutation of the Big Bang, and Einstein's cosmological constant. He structures his book well, delivering a chapter on outlining the mistake (what it was and how a great mind could make such a mistake) and then following with a chapter that examines the impact of the mistake on the development of science.

Livio also deserves credit for looking into primary sources to examine aspects of controversy about these so-called mistakes. In particular, he has a great section on the primacy debate on what is now known as Hubble's Law between Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaitre. In addition, he quite convincingly argues that Einstein never called the cosmological constant his "greatest blunder". In fact, that is a story most of us know third-hand through a not-quite-reliable source.

Because of its triumphs, many people look upon science as some kind of edifice of truth. Those involved in science, however, know that the power of science comes from its ability to advance by correcting mistakes and refining understanding. Because of that, the history of science is riddled with blind alleys and big blunders. Those things happen to be just as important to the development of science as what is currently accepted as accurate. Mr. Livio has done an excellent job of demonstrating this by pointing out the mistakes made by some of the greats. This is a book anyone interested in the history of science should read.
9 internautes sur 11 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Good Book, Lively and Interesting 17 juin 2013
Par Book Fanatic - Publié sur
Format: Relié
The writing style of this book is very lively and the subject matter is interesting. I noticed one reviewer said it was way over the head of most people. Maybe so but "most people" wouldn't be reading it anyway. Anyone who is interested in science and is moderately intelligent should be able to read it without any issues.

Yes all these great scientists made mistakes and in some cases like that of Fred Hoyle clung to them for dear life despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I wouldn't call Einsteins case exactly a "blunder" and Darwin's is understandable.

This is a fascinating book which really functions as a very good introduction to various episodes in the history of science. Easily recommended.
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