Book Report: Brilliant Blunders

Brilliant Blunders - coverHow could a man of such intellectual powers as Kelvin be so sure that he was right even when he was dead wrong?  Like all humans, Kelvin still had to use the hardware between his ears – his brain – and the brain has limitations, even when it belongs to a genius…On one hand, his virtuosic command of physics and his ability to examine potential alternatives with a razor-sharp logic were second to none.  On the other…due to his overconfidence, he could sometimes be completely blindsided by unforeseen possibilities.” (Brilliant Blunders – p95 and p72)

Title: Brilliant Blunders

Author: Mario Livio

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: 2013

Origin: Mario Livio was Jon Stewart’s guest on the September 4th 2013 episode of The Daily Show.  I love science, and I seem to have a thing about mistakes being a necessary part of grand achievement, so I’d ordered the book before the interview was done.

Summary: In Brilliant Blunders, Mario Livio (himself an astrophysicist) provides a compelling narrative to explain why some of history’s greatest scientific minds committed immense and avoidable blunders.  Livio chose five examples for his book: Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein, and moves seamlessly from one to the next.  In the preface, Livio tells us that his objective is simple, “to correct the impression that scientific breakthroughs are purely success stories” (p1).  On the same page he tells us that, “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.”  In Brilliant Blunders, Livio really does take us on a journey through not only the recent scientific age of humanity, but also through the universe from its very inception.

My Take: To be completely honest, I had the wrong impression of the book when I purchased it.  I mustn’t have paid close attention to Livio’s interview on The Daily Show (I was distracted by popping onto Amazon to order the book), because I thought the book was going to be a compendium of mistakes or accidents in science that led to breakthroughs (e.g., discovery of penicillin, picking up the cosmic background radiation, etc.).  So at first, I was a bit confused and then slightly disappointed.  However, these feelings quickly changed as I really “got into” the book.  Livio has done a tremendous job not only telling some fascinating tales, but also in providing the reader sufficient background context to illustrate and explain the nature of the various blunders without overwhelming us with detail.  Nevertheless, you should still be prepared for some crash courses in, among other things, genetics, celestial mechanics, cosmology, chemistry, and various other fields.  I find all of these topics immensely fascinating, so I appreciated Livio’s thoroughness.

Throughout the book, I had an ever-growing sense of wonder and awe, as Livio has chosen five tales that truly illustrate the means by which our enormous library of knowledge has come to be.  The folks profiled in Brilliant Blunders (and not just the “main characters”) were true pioneers (it also struck me how the same names popped up throughout many years of history and across many subjects).  They found a set of current conditions (e.g., life, the universe, everything) and asked themselves how such reality had come to be.  I take for granted the things that they, and others, discovered, and while I’ve done so with a more-than-average understanding of the work of history’s scientific trail-blazers, I have a newfound appreciation for their efforts.  I truly feel privileged to have received some insight into their circumstances, and yes, their blunders, and I am grateful to Livio for sharing these stories with us.

I should point out that I found Brilliant Blunders to be more enlightening than entertaining, but I do not feel this is a loss.  Plus, once I got going, I found myself returning as soon as I could, because the histories Livio gives us are simultaneously remarkable, interesting, and instructive.

Read This Book If: You like science, the scientific method, and human discovery, or want to feel better about the mistakes you make in your own life.

Notes and Quotes:

  • p1: “Not only is the road to triumph paved with blunders, but the bigger the prize, the bigger the potential blunder.”
  • p7, quoting the British historian A. J. P. Taylor: “Like most of those who study history, he [Napoléon] learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones.”
  • p26: “(Darwin’s) idea – natural selection – has been esteemed by Tufts University philosopher Daniel C. Dennett as no less than ‘the single best idea anyone has ever had.'”
  • On how incredible genius can be defeated by overconfidence, p72: “But Kelvin was not a man easily deterred by such difficulties.  Putting his analytic mind to work, he was eventually able to deduce an estimate for the unknown internal temperature.  The entangled intellectual maneuvering that he had to perform to achieve this result presented Kelvin at his best – and his worst.  On one hand, his virtuosic command of physics and his ability to examine potential alternatives with a razor-sharp logic were second to none.  On the other…due to his overconfidence, he could sometimes be completely blindsided by unforeseen possibilities.”
  • p84, quoting George Bernard Shaw: “Science becomes dangerous only when it imagines that it has reached its goal.”
  • p95: “How could a man of such intellectual powers as Kelvin be so sure that he was right even when he was dead wrong?  Like all humans, Kelvin still had to use the hardware between his ears – his brain – and the brain has limitations, even when it belongs to a genius.”
  • I suspect that understanding cognitive dissonance and being able to identify it will help leaders (or followers, perhaps even more significantly) avoid huge mistakes, or at least course-correct before calamity strikes.  p96: “The theory of cognitive dissonance, originally developed by psychologist Leon Festinger, deals precisely with those feelings of discomfort that people experience when presented with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs.  Multiple studies show that to relieve cognitive dissonance, in many cases, instead of acknowledging an error in judgment, people tend to reformulate their views in a new way that justifies their old opinions.”
  • p103, quoting Louis Pasteur:“In the fields of observation, chance favors only the mind that is prepared.”
  • While it is not always possible or practical to avoid hierarchy entirely, certainly leaders can aspire to foster an environment in which ideas can be swapped and critiqued on equal footing.  How many examples could we find of disastrous events in which hierarchy is cited as a major cause (offhand I can think of the Fukushima disaster and at least one plane crash). p122: “There was something else that made the Watson-Crick collaboration truly powerful.  Because neither of them was professionally senior to the other, they could afford to be brutally honest in criticizing each other’s ideas.  This type of intellectual honesty is sometimes missing in relationships burdened by formal politeness, bowing to one’s superiority, or by one of the other pulling rank.”
  • p136, quoting Ambrose Bierce: “Calamities are of two kinds: misfortunes to ourselves, and good fortune to others.”
  • p153, quoting James Watson: “Failure hovers uncomfortably close to greatness.”
  • For a leader, I believe it would be of great benefit to learn to identify the signs of, and reasons for, denial. p218: “Denial offers the troubled mind a way to avoid reopening experiences that were thought to have been brought to a successful closure.”
  • Wow!  What a brilliant example of selection bias that can be used to drive the point home.  p259: “During World War II, the Jewish Austro-Hungarian mathematician Abraham Wald demonstrated a remarkable understanding of selection bias.  Wald was asked to examine data on the location of enemy fire hits on bodies of returning aircraft, to recommend where parts of the airplanes should be reinforced to improve survivability.  To his superiors’ amazement, Wald recommended adding armor to the locations that showed no damage.  His unique insight was that the bullet holes that he saw in surviving aircraft indicated places where an airplane could be hit and still endure.  He therefore concluded that the planes that had been shot down were probably hit precisely in those places where the persevering planes were lucky enough not to have been hit.”
  • p268, quoting Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: “The aspiration to truth is more precious than its assured possessions.”
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Posted in Books, Math and Science
2 comments on “Book Report: Brilliant Blunders
  1. […] p15: “The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps. But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well. How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories. These questions, too, deserve their own discipline = the sociology of error.” (for more on this theme, you could check out Brilliant Blunders) […]

  2. […] a new process, a new idea.  Sure, trying something new has a risk of failure, of the occasional blunder, but not trying something new comes with an assurance of mediocrity.  Luckily, we as leaders (even […]

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