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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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