Brilliant Blunders: A Brilliant Book

A short review.

Posted by Manjil Saikia on January 24, 2016

Recently, I took a trip to India after 16 months. It was a chance to rejuvenate my time and energy with things that I loved to do with people that I loved. One of the things that I had planned to do on the trip was to read at least one good book. Over the years, my habit of reading books have been on the decline so much so that I had to make a special web-page just to encourage myself to add books on the read list of that web-page. My ‘book reading spree’ in India began from the Vienna International Airport where I bought a book and then at the Frankfurt International Airport where I bought another, and devoured a few pages of that book there. In anticipation of my visit home, I had ordered Mario Livio’s book ‘Brilliant Blunders’ online and was expecting it to wait for me at home. However, it arrived a little late and I neglected it for a week, after which I started to read this brilliant book.

The book is about mistakes made by eminent scientists with enough background commentary to make anyone interested in science hooked to the book. Science, unlike many human pursuits is full of mistakes and dead ends. Even in my short stint as a graduate student so far, I have made many mistakes and I have also convinced myself that I had solved a particularly tacky problem only to realize in the shower that I was mistaken. History very rarely judges people who make mistakes lightly. This is true, more so in science perhaps than in any other field of study. Livio’s book is a brilliant portrayal of what makes even scientists of the stature of Einstein humane. The book consists of 11 chapters, with two chapters each devoted to one scientist and his mistake plus an additional introductory chapter. The scientists he choose in the book are Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle and Albert Einstein. All of them brilliant in their fields of work and all of them a household name in every scientists houses.

There are already brilliant reviews of this book by Carl Zimmer and Freeman Dyson so I would not attempt to really analyze the book and offer my insights. I would just mention in passing why I thought the book was really ‘cool’. I mostly read scientific non-fiction and like to read popular science accounts on things that I have no particular expertise. This book provided me a really good opportunity to learn a lot of biology and physics which otherwise I would perhaps have not got a chance to read about. The book had a short biography of each scientist and some details about their most famous work. Then it went on to analyze the blunder that they committed and why the author thought they committed that blunder. In a very concise manner, Livio has given all the essential details anyone might need to understand at least in part what these brilliant scientists did and how they changed the course of modern history and science. The book will also encourage a practising scientist or mathematician to not be afraid of making mistakes, and also admitting one’s mistakes later when confronted.

I had not read previously anything written by Livio, but after reading this book I want to take a shot at some of his other works. It turns out that Livio is himself a scientist of repute and is considered a wonderful orator of science. I am glad I had the chance to read this book.