When Great Scientists Got It Wrong

In Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, astrophysicist Mario Livio explores the colossal errors committed by scientific greats, from chemist Linus Pauling's botched model of DNA, to Charles Darwin's failure to understand genetics—the very mechanism of natural selection.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Ever heard of a guy named Charles Darwin? How about Linus Pauling, Albert Einstein, Lord Kelvin, Fred Hoyle? OK, I know that most of you have heard of those names, because these guys are some of the brightest minds in the history of science. But they all have something else in common, too. They all, at some point in their career got, something terribly wrong. That's right, terribly wrong. And being right doesn't always mean you never make a mistake.

Take Darwin, for example. His theory of evolution by natural selection, the key to that theory, the way favorable traits are passed on, it's through genes. The only problem is Darwin did not understand genetics. In fact, his original idea of how inheritance worked would have been discredited. It would have discredited the whole process of evolution.

And it's just one of the fascinating stories in my next guest's book, "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein." Mario Livio is the author. He's also an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Livio.

MARIO LIVIO: Thank you for having me, Ira.

FLATOW: All these people made great mistakes.

LIVIO: Yes, and it's sort of comforting that, you know, even these enormous luminaries also made mistakes.

FLATOW: Let's go through some of them. What would you say would be the biggest faux pas in your book?

LIVIO: I think all of them are huge mistakes, I mean...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LIVIO: ...and this is why, you know, I call them blunders and so on. So I don't think one is more of a mistake than another. I mean, each one of those mistakes is of a huge magnitude.

FLATOW: Well, let's start with - I brought up Charles Darwin first. Let's talk about his botched idea about how beneficial traits are passed on. Tell us about that.

LIVIO: So, Darwin adopted the theory of heredity that was, at the time, was believed, in which was that the characteristics of the father and the mother are mixed in the offspring in the same way that you would mix paint, you know? So you take white paint and black paint. You completely mix them together, and they form something that's gray.

FLATOW: Right.

LIVIO: Now, the problem with that was that, in this type of theory, there is no way that if you, say, had a population of a thousand white cats and one black cat, and suppose that being black provided some advantage, but, you know, if every time they mate, they would get a more dilute kind of gray, then the black disappears. And there was no way it would give you any kind of an advantage. So natural selection simply would not have worked.

FLATOW: Hmm. And he did not understand that.

LIVIO: No, he didn't. He did - once it was pointed out that, you know, I mean, you know, you take gin and tonic, you put a lot of tonic in, at the end, there is no gin, once this was pointed out by an engineer, he realized that there is a problem here.

And on several occasions, he actually made some interesting pronouncements which - you know, he came very close to understanding that maybe the mixing of the characteristic is more like shuffling two decks of cards. You see, when - you know, if you have a queen in a deck of card, the queen always stays a queen, no matter how much you shuffle. And he made some pronouncements to that effect.

FLATOW: Was he not aware of Gregor Mendel's experiments with - those famous experiments with the peas at that time?

LIVIO: No, he was absolutely unaware of those. Now, you know...

FLATOW: Because he was a contemporary, right? They lived about the same time.

LIVIO: Yeah. That's right. That's right. They lived the same time, and that's when Mendel wrote his famous paper. In fact, there have been a few people who claim that maybe he did know about that. But after doing a lot of research on this and some other people from the Darwin project, first of all, he never had Mendel's paper in his possession. And he did have one book which mentioned Mendel's experiment, but I actually held that book in my hand, and, believe it or not, Darwin never cut the pages of that book. You know, at that time, they used to have the pages, you know, at the top connected...

FLATOW: Right.

LIVIO: ...and he never cut the pages. So he never read that.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Mario Livio, who is talking about some very interesting and strange things. "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein" in his - is his new book.

So he had Gregor Mendel's original book in his hand.

LIVIO: No, no, it was not Mendel's book. It was...

FLATOW: I mean, he had - you had Darwin's...

LIVIO: He had a book that mentioned.

FLATOW: It mentioned it.

LIVIO: I held it in my hand, yeah. I held it in my hand.

FLATOW: And they used to print books in those days, sometimes the printer, the binder wouldn't get the page cut at the top of...

LIVIO: That's right.

FLATOW: So the two pages are sticking together, and had he cut it, he might have...

LIVIO: He would not - no, he would not have learned much, to be honest...

(LAUGHTER)

LIVIO: ...because I looked at what - how, you know, Focke, who is the person who wrote that book, described Mendel's experiment, and he didn't understand the meaning of the experiments himself. So, you know, Darwin would not have been illuminated even had he read those pages.

FLATOW: So when did he learn about it, finally?

LIVIO: He never did, actually.

FLATOW: He never did.

LIVIO: Darwin never did. No, he was led into an incorrect theory. He understood that there was a problem, but he was led into an incorrect theory. And, you know, it's kind of sad that he didn't live to see how Mendelian genetics and his theory of evolution really started complementing each other. But, you know, one had to wait decades after that to - for that to happen.

FLATOW: Yeah. But you write that - something I didn't know - that Darwin himself, though, was doing experiments with peas.

LIVIO: Yes. He actually did a very similar experiment with Mendel - to that of Mendel. And, you know, Mendel got a 3-to-1 ratio between yellow and green peas, and Darwin got 2-point-something-to-1. So he really got very close results. But Darwin was really - he was weak on - if he was weak on something, he was weak on mathematics.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LIVIO: So he didn't quite understand, you know, the probabilistic nature of these results.

FLATOW: Don't you always find that there is some sort of weakness that some scientists have, whether it's in mathematics or some other kind of - something that keeps them from making that breakthrough?

LIVIO: Yeah. You're right. I mean, you know, today, we are more used to that all the fundamental theories have a mathematical component to them. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is unique in some sense, that, you know, here you have this entire fantastic theory, and it actually - it is a non-mathematical theory.

FLATOW: You wouldn't see that today.

LIVIO: Very little of that.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's talk about Linus Pauling. This is an amazing story, also, the blunder that he made. His model of the alpha helix and his model of the DNA molecule were wrong. What went wrong there?

LIVIO: OK. The model for the alpha helix was actually correct. That was his model for proteins.

FLATOW: Right.

LIVIO: So he worked on that model for, you know, almost 13 years and came up with a correct model for proteins, which was really amazing, an amazing success. But then he started to do a model for DNA, and his model for DNA was wrong in every possible way. I mean, the molecule was built inside-out. It had three strands instead of two. It really would not have held together, because he had so much negative charge at the center, that the whole thing would've fallen apart. And it really didn't even obey the basic rules of chemistry. And you know it was...

FLATOW: And he was a chemist. He was a great chemist, though.

LIVIO: He was the greatest chemist of his time.

(LAUGHTER)

LIVIO: So, you know, he largely fell victim to his own previous success, you know? In the case of the alpha helix, it turned out, after 13 years of work, that all of his initial hunches were correct. And even little things that did not agree, you know, at the end, all worked out. So he, you know, kind of started - believed in his own infallibility, if you want.

FLATOW: And he brought it with him to the DNA molecule.

LIVIO: Right. And then he thought, you know, OK. You know, there are - this is still details. Maybe there are some details that don't work, but it will work out at the end.

FLATOW: Details, details. I know I'm right. All right. We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more with Mario Livio, author of "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein." It talks a lot about all the great blunders scientists have made. And we'll talk more about how making blunders, how being wrong is necessary for the movement of science to go forward. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about scientific geniuses, lots of them who got stuff wrong, really wrong. Mario Livio is author of "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein." He is also an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, where all those great pictures of the Hubble Space Telescope get processed.

LIVIO: That's right.

FLATOW: Gorgeous stuff that's going to - there was - speaking of blunders, there was a great blunder in the Hubble when it was first built, was there not?

LIVIO: That's true. Yes. You know, the Hubble mirror was polished perfectly, but to the wrong specifications. And as a result, it gave it images that were much more blurred than we hoped that they would be. But luckily, through the ingenuity of many scientists, engineers and through the courage of astronauts, we managed to fix all that.

FLATOW: That was a great blunder. We were talking about Linus Pauling before the break, about the great blunder he had. And you almost made it sound like it was hubris. You know, like, he had this great model of the alpha helix. It was absolutely, you know, almost magical in predicting what that looked like. And he got to the DNA molecule and said, well, I was right about it the first time. I must be right about this one the second time, and he was wrong. Way wrong.

LIVIO: I think it was - yeah, I think was hubris, I mean, to a large extent. But it was also, you know, I more or less convinced myself and I describe in the book how I - why I'm almost convinced about that, that even to the very last minute, Pauling didn't quite believe that DNA was really the most important stuff. I think he still believed that proteins were more important. And so he really put much, much less time - you know, compared to the 13 years that he worked on proteins, he actually worked on his model for DNA but just about one month.

FLATOW: One month.

LIVIO: Yeah. So...

FLATOW: But Jim Watson, though, thought he was right on his trail, didn't he?

LIVIO: They were on his trail, only he didn't quite know about Watson and Crick. But he did know that the people in Cambridge and in London had better x-ray images than he had, and he was afraid that they will publish, you know, faster.

FLATOW: But he wasn't afraid. I mean, you mentioned this in this book, that Pauling was not afraid of it. He said if you think you have a good idea, publish it. Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes do no harm in science, because there are lots of smart people out there who will immediately spot a mistake and correct it. You can only make a fool of yourself, and that does no harm, except to your pride. If it happens to be a good idea, however, and you don't publish it, science may suffer a loss.

LIVIO: That's right. He told that to his post doc at the time, Jack Dunitz, who was himself a great scientist. And it's true. But it shouldn't be taken as advocacy for sloppy science or, you know, or uncareful science. I mean, what you really meant is that if you have a great idea, then, even if you have taken a certain risk in saying it out then just say it, you know, and - or publish it. And if it turns out to be a mistake, so be it.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's move on to talk - let's talk about what everybody, I'm sure, wants to talk about, and that's Einstein. You have a chapter on Einstein titled, "The Biggest Blunder." But Einstein's blunder was unusual, in that he was almost too smart, right? He was almost too smart for his own good. He came up with the right answer, and then he said no, that can't be right, and he took it back.

LIVIO: That's right. So, Einstein, you know, came up with this fantastic theory of general relativity. But then when he tried to apply this theory to the universe as a whole, he said, but wait a second. He thought that the universe would be static, that everything, you know, just stands in place. But it was the force of gravity that was attracting everything, you know, so that this universe would have collapsed under its own weight. So, basically, he ended the term that was a repulsive force that was supposed to precisely balance gravity at all places.

Now, once Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is actually expanding, Einstein said, whoa, wait a second. If the universe is expanding, then I don't need a repulsive force. All that gravity would do, it would slow down the expansion somewhat, you know, and that's it. So he took the term out and, you know, regretted having putting it in the first place. What happened in 1998 is that we discovered that our universe is actually speeding up, the expansion is speeding up. It's accelerating. And guess what is accelerating it. It's that term, apparently, that Einstein actually took out. So his real blunder was taking the term out rather than putting it in.

FLATOW: And now he's been quoted as saying that was the biggest blunder of his life. Were you able to find any documentation to actually prove that's what he said?

LIVIO: So in fact, I almost convinced myself. You see, you cannot convince yourself 100 percent that somebody did not say something. But I basically convinced myself that he actually never used that term. That term came from one source and one source only, and this was the very bright scientist George Gamow.

But George Gamow was also known as embellishing all his stories. And I really looked at all the documents that Einstein wrote, that Gamow wrote, the exchanges between them, the nature of the relationship between them and so on. And, in fact, the story is based just on two places where Gamow wrote this. Einstein himself never, never wrote such a thing anywhere.

FLATOW: Gamow was very popular. He was a great popularizer of science.

LIVIO: He was.

FLATOW: He wrote many articles in magazines and newspapers, so I guess you could see where he might get carried away a little bit. He was popularizing science to come up with something maybe that was sort of like Einstein said, a little literary license maybe.

LIVIO: Yeah. Einstein regretted having put the term in, but he didn't use those precise words. And this became interesting to me because this is almost Einstein's most quoted phrase. So you know, it was interesting to see has he actually used those words.

FLATOW: Yeah. That is quite interesting. Let's talk about another strange fact that's in your book. You write that Vladimir Nabokov, the author of "Lolita" and "Pale Fire," actually came up with a scientific theory about butterflies at one point.

LIVIO: Yeah,. It's really amazing, yeah. It turns out he was, you know, an avid, you know, layperson but had great interest in butterflies and how they evolve and so on. And he suggested that butterflies moved in certain ways from between Asia and Europe and so on. And just about a couple of years ago scientists discovered that, you know, what he suggested is actually correct.

FLATOW: And how did he come up with that idea? I mean, was it based on fact?

LIVIO: He was really following - yeah, yeah. He was following, you know, the butterflies and, you know, and where - what kinds of species you find where and so on. He was really very interested and very knowledgeable in butterflies.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. OK. Let's move on to another famous guy: Lord Kelvin. Tell us who Lord Kelvin was and what his big blunder was.

LIVIO: So Lord Kelvin was probably the most eminent physicist of his time. I mean, you can learn that that's the situation from learning the fact that he was actually buried alongside Newton. This is the respect that he - this person got. And he had many, many correct things and many inventions, and he was a fantastic human being in many ways.

But the blunder I describe is when he tried to calculate the age of the Earth. And the age that he got was about 100 million years, when today we know that the Earth is about four and a half billion years old. So you know, he got the age wrong by almost a factor of 50...

FLATOW: Wow.

LIVIO: ...which is, of course, a big mistake for a physicist.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And did he ever find out that he got it wrong?

LIVIO: Well, it was pointed out to him that he could have been wrong, but he never accepted that.

(LAUGHTER)

LIVIO: In his old age he became very, very stubborn and he opposed almost everything new that anybody would suggest. I mean unfortunately it happens to some people.

FLATOW: Well, you know, yeah, you know, there is that - now I'm having a senior moment about the scientist who said it that, time marches on one funeral at a time.

LIVIO: Yeah. I mean, so - I believe Max Planck said something to that effect, namely that it is not that you can really convince people of a new idea. It's just that the older generation, they die. The newer generation already grows up with the new idea, and this is how they accept it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So what does it take then to change the minds of scientists? Does it take some sort of paradigm shift that's going on?

LIVIO: Scientists, you know, you would have thought that by definition they change their minds all the time because, I mean, the way science progresses is that, you know, you have a certain theory and you then falsify the theory, then you have to abandon that theory and take a new one and so on. So in the progress of science, it is actually built in that you should change your mind.

But apparently for some people, you know, after they have been right for dozens of years, it suddenly becomes difficult. They become addicted to being right, and it becomes difficult to admit that they were wrong, could be wrong in something.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, what else happens to them is that they get to be famous, and people think they must be experts on everything. So they start answering questions about things they don't know a whole lot about.

LIVIO: Right. Well - but in Kelvin's case, actually, he did know a lot about, you know, physics and calculate(ph) - I mean let me not, you know, diminish from what he did. He did the first real calculation, you know, based on physics of the age of the Earth. This was an amazing achievement. And he convinced all the geologists of his time that, you know, that's what they should do.

FLATOW: Yeah. What about Linus Pauling and Vitamin C?

LIVIO: Well, you know, that's another thing. So sometimes what happens to, you know, big scientists, you know, scientist that really have been enormously successful, is that as they grow older they don't feel as if they can continue, you know, with kind of mainstream incremental science after they have done something really big in the past. And as a result they adopt something that is completely outside of mainstream because they think, a-ha, maybe I'll make yet another huge contribution.

And that has happened to Pauling with Vitamin C. And it happens to others too, you know, that at old age they suddenly pick up on something. Yes, it happened to Hoyle, Fred Hoyle, who is another person that I discuss on the concept of how did life evolve, you know, and so on. It's not a topic I discuss much in the book, but he started saying that probably all of life on Earth came from outer space and things like that and so on. So it happens.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Mario Livio, author of "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein," talking about great blunders that happened. Speaking about those kinds of blunders late in life, Bill Shockley, who was one of the inventors of the transistor, also got into trouble about views about racism late...

LIVIO: Yeah. Unfortunately it is more common than we would like.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's talk about Fred Hoyle because Fred Hoyle - people don't know. Let's talk about one of Fred Hoyle's blunders. He is the originator of the term the Big Bang. Is he not? And he...

LIVIO: That's right.

FLATOW: Most people - go ahead.

LIVIO: So it's really amusing. You know, he is the person who actually coins the term Big Bang and he was the person who was most opposed to the Big Bang. He coined the term actually in a radio program, just, you know, like the one we're having now, where he said, OK, there is one theory that says that the whole universe was forming like one big bang, you know, and so on. And that term really caught. But he opposed to it.

FLATOW: Well, people said, during that interview they intimated that he was saying it in a derogatory manner. Oh, it's a big bang, you know, that sort of thing.

LIVIO: Right. As far as I could tell, it wasn't so much derogatory as he wanted to create a mental picture to the listeners, you know, on radio, to say, OK, it was created in one big bang and so on.

FLATOW: And so what was his big blunder?

LIVIO: So the big blunder was - so he came up with a theory that was - that the universe is in a steady state. Namely the universe is always the same. It always was the same and always will be the same. And - but he also knew that the universe is expanding. So for the universe to stay the same, for example, for the density of matter to not change, he had to create matter in the universe. Because as the universe was getting larger, he had to have new matter there for the density to stay the same.

So this in itself was not a blunder. When he suggested this, it was a beautiful idea because, you know, we say the universe is the same everywhere and in every direction. And he wanted to add to that and that every time. So that, you know, sounded very elegant.

The blunder was that after about 15 years, when evidence started accumulating that this is really not the way the universe behaves but in fact the universe does evolve and change, he stubbornly refused to accept that.

FLATOW: Hmm. Now today we know that - not to say that he was correct, but now we know that even though this whole - the universe is out there, there is all this dark stuff. And we all know that there can be something from nothing, things can come of it, that empty space is not really empty. Was he onto something there maybe?

LIVIO: He was on to many things, you know, even the idea of the multiverse, if you like. You know, the fact that we are just one member of an ensemble in some sense resembles a little bit this idea of, you know, of a steady state because, OK, maybe our own universe is evolving but, you know, the entire ensemble, you know, could be in some sort of a steady state.

FLATOW: Is there any great modern blunder that's happening now that we might...

LIVIO: Oh, there are lots of modern blunders but not all of them are brilliant.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: To be brilliant, it has to be truly an epic blunder, is what you're saying.

LIVIO: Well, it has to be something that in one way or another leads to a real breakthrough. You know, this is how I define, you know, a brilliant blunder and not just something that is a big mistake. I mean there are lots of huge mistakes.

While I was writing this book, when people would ask me what is your book about, I said, you know, it's about brilliant blunders and it's not an autobiography.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: All right. Mario, we'll leave it at that. Thank you very much for taking time to talk with us today.

LIVIO: Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Good luck on your book. It's a really interesting read. Mario Livio, author of "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein."

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