Five science “luminaries” are seemingly put in a petri dish by astrophysicist, Mario Livio. Published in May 2013, in Brilliant Blunders “colossal” errors by the greatest scientists of all times are exposed by the operator of Hubble Space Telescope, as allegedly, they all “. . .could have potentially jeopardize our understanding of life, earth, and the universe; and, they could have potentially hold back the progress of science.” (Livio 2013) Indeed, science is such a complicated subject that even gigantic figures are vulnerable to mistakes. Hence, it is important to understand its meaning, methods, mechanisms, and to set a unifying thread; to establish limitations in order to understand how the natural and/or physical phenomena work.
On a personal note, being a non-science major student, reviewing this book is so challenging for me. In fact, I have to read two books to come up with this review. In addition, I have to go back to the very beginning of our class, in January of spring 2014 and read ten chapters of our Biology textbook, Campbell Essential Biology with Physiology (Custom Edition), to establish my unequivocal stand on the underlying issues of Livio’s arguments. In addition, I also read two versions (both digital and print) of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in November 24, 1859. (Livio 2013) For it is my utmost priority, to come up with a fair and fact-based evaluation. However, because I know I cannot delve deeply about everything in that book, this review is only covering what I learned from this semester, of spring 2014, and in my biology class, evolution and inheritance.
Nevertheless, Brilliant Blunders is composed of eleven main chapters, and five additional all others (e.g. Preface, Coda, and etcetera), written in three-hundred and forty-one pages.
In the first chapter, Mistakes and Blunders, Livio talks about the five “protagonists,” “luminaries” as he addressed them, but all with the anti-hero characters—caused by their apparent “colossal” mistakes or blunders in the very profound world of science. The scientists are as follow:
1. Charles Darwin
2. Lord Kelvin
3. Linus Pauling
4. Fred Hoyle, and
5. Albert Einstein
In this take-off chapter, Livio also informs his readers that the world evolution is the “unifying thread” that connects all chapters. Each “luminary” is assigned two chapters. Every beginning chapter (for any luminary), he talks in a positive note by citing their contributions to science, and how they affect the world and the universe as a whole. In the succeeding chapter he sights the blunders of the “luminaries” and the repercussions, or possible repercussions of their apparent “errors” in their respective fields of science, along with the possible causes of either psychological or neuroscientific factors surrounding their “brilliant blunders.”
In regards to the Origin of Species however, there are fourteen chapters, five-hundred-and two pages, and a single figure of a tree, which looks like a simple phylogeny tree, personally drawn by Darwin. According to Livio, that Darwin’s book “. . . changes our understanding of life on earth.” It talks about four pillars of biology, namely:
3. Descent with Modification
Furthermore, Livio acknowledges that natural selection is correct. Moreover, natural selection is the mechanism behind those four mentioned processes. Livio specifically stresses that he is not taking it against Darwin, that the latter does not know about genetics, nor what the acceptable theories of inheritance in the nineteenth-century (or Darwin’s day).
In science though, it was a given fact—one that was well-embraced that Darwin was once a mediocre student. Although science was in his genes (from his grandfather, to his father, and his siblings most of them went to medical school), he did not have the instant intelligence for science. Worse, he struggled with it; and, he did not have a stomach for it (witnessing surgeries without the anesthesia, of course, it was such gruesome sight). He even dropped pursuing science, and switched to theology instead, just to earn his undergraduate degree. All facts were in most books, articles, videos, and other academic resources, and in all mediums (or forms) about Darwin (and just as how we covered all these in class as well).
I first learned about him in my anthropology class, Emerging Humanity (or Anthropology 151). Wherein, at the beginning of our semester, my classmates and I watched a NOVA PBS documentary, What Darwin Never Knew. In that film, amid knowing the “blunder” of Darwin (as Livio castigated) that indeed posed challenge to natural selection–which was DNA (Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid)–from the biologists, to paleontologists, anthropologists, and paleoanthropologists, they all spoke highly and with so much regards and enthusiasm about Darwin. To the point, the film seemed like a celebration of his life, when they could have featured the man behind our understanding of inheritance, Gregor Mendel (the Augustinian monk from Czech Republic, who studied rigorously about genetics, and almost the same time as Darwin published his book in 1859). (Simon Et Al, Pg. 146)
Livio knows that the concept of inheritance in the nineteenth-century or in Darwin’s day, is ultimately wrong. Since he knows this fact, why is he talking about something that “Darwin never knew?” Why is his arguments against Darwin is based on the latter’s concept of inheritance?
Please allow me to reiterate, I am not a science-major student. From arts, I switch to business. Although science is not my field, I really appreciate Darwin for his courage in writing and publishing the Origin of Species. Because most people at that time only believed in our biblical creation. Moreover, I admire him for spending nearly all his life, trying to grasp how the natural world works. Therefore, it’s not fair (for anyone) to question his contributions to science, and to this world. For in reality, the science communities know
so well that Darwin’s natural selection has been the golden gate to our understanding of how evolution works.
In our Biology 101 class, we learn science is “Any method of learning about the natural world that follows a scientific method” (Simon Et al 2013). Moreover, our biology professor, Wendy Kuntz, Ph.D., even stresses that science is a “discipline . . . limited to the study of the Physical Universe.” Likewise our textbook defines natural selection as the “. . . process in which organisms with certain inherited characteristics more likely to survive and reproduce than are organisms with other characteristics; unequal reproductive success” (Simon Et Al). Most importantly, our textbook is clear in differentiating hypothesis (is an idea) from theory (a set of ideas). (Simon Et al 2013) Moreover, on inheritance, we learn how to use Reginald Punnett’s Punnett Square that helps us predict the possibilities of transferring inheritable diseases. However, there is nowhere in our book that states for a hypothesis to be accepted as a theory, theorist like Darwin must use a mathematical expression to prove his arguments.
Because what is clear to me, after completely reading his book, Livio demands math especially from Darwin. Livio look at those five great scientists and their apparent brilliant blunders in the mathematician’s eyes—as he is really more of a math expert than a scientist. In fact, most of Livio’s previously published works feature more of math than science. Moreover, if science highlights his study, there is always a strong and convincing math computation, or expression behind. No doubt, he’s a math genius. But are we talking of math? Or are we talking of science? Maybe, we can say, kudos to him. However, let this be a challenge: He should make an invention of his own. He should make his due contribution to science, and prove his intelligence. Rather, than talking about others’ mistakes, he should prove the world that he can make viable contribution than can make our lives better, or at least something than can improve science. Rather than intriguing predecessors, who are way farther than six feet down under. For those great scientists have already given their fair share to the evolution of knowledge, and of science. They deserve respect; they deserve to rest in peace.
Honestly, two months ago, in my last evaluation essay on the first three chapters of this book, I supported Livio. Admittedly, I was one great critic too. I agreed with him that those “luminaries” should have exercise diligence, patience, and perseverance in proving their hypotheses, more so in publishing their works. However, after thorough reading and synthesizing what we learned from class, and have realized the remarkable contributions of Darwin to biology (and the rest of natural science), sad to say, I cannot agree with Livio anymore. For even though, he did not say anything wrong about science, and how it worked, or at least not about biology and evolution, nor about inheritance. However, he missed one writing and researching essential, and that was to synthesize. It’s a basic concept of gathering ideas to come up with a non-bias unequivocal stand. A very basic concept that is greatly taught in higher education in United States of America, in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, or in most English native speaking country, learning how to synthesize may not be available in Israel, where Livio earned both his graduate and undergraduate studies. So maybe it’s fair not to judge Livio on this blunder, just as Darwin is deprived of how genetics works in the nineteenth-century.
Sadly, Livio miss to synthesize the works of these great scientists in a greater and broader concept. He picks their weakest links, and labels his harsh critiques as blunders. He further says that the common denominator for all the chapters of his book is the word of evolution: “evolution of life on earth, evolution of earth itself, and evolution of the universe.” (Livio 2013) He even emphasizes “. . . blunders of evolution, and evolution of blunders.” But what about knowledge? Did he even realize that knowledge is very much evolving too?
Indeed, knowledge or its nature is very much evolving–and therefore, Livio should have considered. Because science indeed, is about knowledge. It’s about exploring, gaining, and/or advancing knowledge in its most profound and verifiable form. In fact, one definition of science (that we learn in class) is its Latin meaning “to know.” (Simon Et al 2013)
Another blunder of Livio, is the dragging use of the word “luminaries.” If he is a scientist, and that he respect his profession, he should have just address them as scientists. Because I am sure, they would rather hear that they are recognized in their chosen fields. Moreover, luminary means popularity; the effect in using such term is the malicious use of the user in seemingly riding on the established popularity of those great scientists.
Finally, “what if Darwin knew” about genetics? What if he knew how to use Punnett Square? What if the title of his book was the Genetic Origin of Species? What if he merged his works with Mendel? What if Darwin had the tools and technology that Livio have these days? Can you imagine?
Regardless, I believe that there is righteousness in committing errors. And that is the wisdom we gain after we accepted we err. In science, the way the field accepts mistakes, is inherent to science itself. For studies in all branches of science are continuously ongoing and evolving. Everything is subject to advancement. Moreover, the way experts in this field synthesize their works, is they use the past as a foundation to establish modern definitions and to incorporate recent theories and discoveries. Most importantly, it is the “job” of the scientists of today, to improve the works of Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein. The scientists of today need not to point fingers who did wrong nor who did best. They should just get to work and embrace the challenge. Livio should have known better; he should have written better. I guess, there goes another “brilliant blunder.” But is Livio a luminary? Is he a scientist or a mathematician? I let his books speak for him.
Darwin, Charles Robert. The Origin of Species. Vol. XI. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. Web. 30 Apr 2014.
Livio, Mario. “Brilliant Blunders, From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe.” Simonandschuster. Print. 14 May 2013.
Simon, Eric J., Jean L. Dickey and Jane B. Reece. Campbell, Essential Biology with Physiology, Custom Edition. 2013. Print. 1 May 2013.