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May. 16, 2013

Brilliant Blunders

by Mario Livio

Click to enlarge images
When the mercurial Bobby Fischer, perhaps the most famous chess player in the history of the game, finally showed up in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the summer of 1972 for his world championship match against Boris Spassky, the anticipation in the chess world was so thick you could cut it with a chain saw. Even people who had never shown any interest in chess before were holding their breath for what had been dubbed “the Match of the Century.” Yet in the twenty-ninth move of the very first game, in a position that appeared to be leading to a dead draw, Fischer chose a move that even amateur chess players would have rejected instinctively as a mistake. This may have been a typical manifestation of what is known as “chess blindness”—an error that in the chess literature is denoted by “??”—and would have disgraced a five-year-old in a local chess club. Particularly astonishing was the fact that the mistake was committed by a man who’d smashed his way to the match with the Russian Spassky after an extraordinary sequence of twenty successive wins against the world’s top players. (In most world-class competitions, there are easily as many draws as outright victories.) Is this type of “blindness” something that happens only in chess? Or are other intellectual enterprises also prone to similarly surprising mistakes?
 
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Indeed, we all make numerous mistakes in our everyday lives. We lock our keys inside the car, we invest in the wrong stock (or sometimes in the right stock, but at the wrong time), we grossly overestimate our ability to multitask, and we often blame the absolutely wrong causes for our misfortunes. This misattribution, by the way, is one of the reasons that we rarely actually learn from our mistakes. In all cases, of course, we realize that these were mistakes only after we have made them—hence, Wilde’s definition of “experience.” Moreover, we are much better at judging other people than at analyzing ourselves. As psychologist and Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman has put it, “I am not very optimistic about people’s ability to change the way they think, but I am fairly optimistic about their ability to detect the mistakes of others.”
 
Even attentively and carefully constructed processes, such as those involved in the criminal justice system, fail occasionally—sometimes heartbreakingly so. Ray Krone of Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, spent more than ten years behind bars and faced the death penalty after having been convicted twice of a brutal murder he did not commit. He was eventually fully exonerated (and the real killer implicated) by DNA evidence.
 
The focus of this book, however, is not on such mistakes, no matter how grave they may be: it is on major scientific blunders. By “scientific blunders,” I mean particularly serious conceptual errors that could potentially jeopardize entire theories and game plans, or could, in principle at least, hold back the progress of science.
 
Human history teems with stories of momentous blunders in a wide range of disciplines. Some of these consequential errors go all the way back to the Scriptures, or to Greek mythology. In the book of Genesis, for instance, the very first act of Eve—the biblical mother of all living humans—was to yield to the crafty serpent and to eat the forbidden fruit. This monumental lapse in judgment led to no less than the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and—at least according to the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas—even to humans being eternally denied access to absolute truth. In the Greek mythology, Paris’s misguided elopement with the beautiful Helen, the wife of the king of Sparta, brought about the total destruction of the city of Troy. But these examples don’t even begin to scratch the surface. Throughout history, neither renowned military commanders nor famous philosophers or groundbreaking thinkers were immune to serious blunders. During World War II, the German field marshal Fedor von Bock foolishly repeated Napoléon’s ill-fated attack on Russia in 1812.
 
Both officers failed to appreciate the insurmountable powers of “General Winter”—the long and harsh Russian winter for which they were woefully unprepared. The British historian A. J. P. Taylor once summarized Napoléon’s calamities this way: “Like most of those who study history, he [Napoléon] learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones.”
 
In the philosophical arena, the great Aristotle’s erroneous ideas on physics (such as his belief that all bodies move toward their “natural” place) fell just as wide off the mark as did Karl Marx’s awry predictions on the imminent collapse of capitalism. Similarly, many of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic speculations, be it on the “death instinct”—a supposed impulse to return to a pre-life state of quietude—or on the role of an infantile Oedipus complex in the neuroses of women, have been found to be pathetically amiss, to put it mildly.
 
You may think, OK, people made mistakes, but surely, when it comes to some of the greatest scientists of the past two centuries—such as the twice Nobel laureate Linus Pauling or the formidable Albert Einstein—they were correct at least in those theories for which they are best known, right? After all, hasn’t the intellectual glory of modern times been precisely in the establishment of science as an empirical discipline, and of error-proof mathematics as the “language” of fundamental science? Were, then, the theories of these illustrious minds and of other comparable thinkers truly free of serious blunders? Absolutely not!
 
The purpose of this book is to present in detail some of the surprising blunders of a few genuinely towering scientists, and to follow the unexpected consequences of those blunders. At the same time, my goal is also to attempt to analyze the possible causes for these blunders and, to the extent possible, to uncover the fascinating relations between those blunders and features or limitations of the human mind. Ultimately, however, I hope to demonstrate that the road to discovery and innovation can be constructed even through the unlikely path of blunders.
 
As we shall see, the delicate threads of evolution interweave all the particular blunders that I have selected to explore in detail in this book. That is, these are serious blunders related to the theories of the evolution of life on Earth, the evolution of the Earth itself, and the evolution of our universe as a whole.
 

Excerpted from Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio.  Copyright © 2013 by Mario Livio. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

 
About the Author

Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, and a popular lecturer.  He is the author of The Golden Ratio, a highly acclaimed book about mathematics and art for which he received the International Pythagoras Prize and the Peano Prize; The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved; Is God a Mathematician?; and The Accelerating Universe.  He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

 

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About Mario Livio

Mario Livio is the author of Brilliant Blunders.

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