Audio Transcript:

Kurt Andersen: As I mentioned to Andrea, I recently read an excellent new non-fiction book about mistakes made by scientific superstars, like Darwin, and Einstein, and Lord Kelvin, all regarded as unimpeachable geniuses now, of course, but over the course of their careers, all of them got something big wrong. The book is called "Brilliant Blunders" and it's by the NASA astrophysicist Mario Livio. He thinks it's important to remember the big missteps as well as the moments of genius, because science requires both.

Mario Livio: It has occurred to me that science is presented as this direct march to the truth, and being a scientist myself, I know that's very far from the truth. So, I really wanted to give this picture of this zig-zag path with lots of false starts, and so on.

Andersen: Which is why this book is so valuable. So, at the risk of giving aid and comfort to anti-scientific creationists, let's take the theory of evolution. What was flawed about it?

Livio: So, you know, Darwin didn't know any genetics, and we cannot blame him for that, I mean, nobody knew genetics at the time. But he adopted the theory of blending heredity, namely the characteristics of the two parents get mixed like gin and tonic or like paints and what he didn't realize, and that was his blunder, that with such a theory, actually natural selection could never have really worked.

Andersen: Because you'd know exactly what was going to happen forever. There's no mutations possible.

Livio: There's no mutations and plus you know the characteristic that you wanted to preserve gets diluted very, very fast and in fact disappears from the population instead of shifting the entire population into that direction.

Andersen: Right.

Livio: One thing that he understood, which was really fantastic, and you wonder why anybody else did not immediately understand, was that you say "If I take a distinct male and a distinct female, they also produce a distinct male or female and not some intermediate hermaphrodite."

Andersen: Yeah. Good point.

Livio: So, he noticed that there was a problem there, he just didn't know how to correct it.

Andersen: There are some scientists that you write about who are so intent on rejecting things that they don't understand, or in the particular case of Albert Einstein aren't mathematically consistent. Explain his idea of the cosmological constant and the trouble that caused him.

Livio: Einstein thought that they universe was static, that nothing was moving, because at the time when he tried to apply his theory of general relativity to the universe, 1917, we didn't know that the universe was not static. But he knew that there is gravity everywhere. Everything attracts everything else, so how can it be static - these things should just be collapsing. So, he added this term into his equations, which was not easy by the way, to add a term that would still leave all the principles intact, which added the repulsive gravity which exactly balanced the attractive gravity that existed there to keep everything in place.

Andersen: So, the math required him to create this X factor even though we had no idea what it is?

Livio: Right. Now, in the late 1920's, astronomers discovered that the universe is in fact expanding. Once Einstein heard that, he said, "But wait a second, if it's all expanding, I don't need this accurate balance, because all that gravity would do is it would slow down expansion." So he regretted having put that term in and pulled it out of his equation, even though it was allowed by the principles of the theory.

Andersen: And what did subsequent science do to that?

Livio: Well, 15 years ago - actually precisely 1998, two groups of astronomers discovered that our universe is not only expanding, the expansion is speeding up. It's accelerating, and as far as we can tell, at least to this point, the thing that's driving this speeding up is precisely that extra repulsive term that Einstein put originally into his equation.

Andersen: So, he was more or less right the first time?

Livio: Yes. He was more right the first time than by taking it out.

Andersen: So, are there ways for scientists to sort of keep shaking up their assumptions about, "Oh, this is right, this is wrong." Musicians can improvise, writers can switch back and forth between the third person and first person to give themselves a new sense of narrative reality, are there any equivalents in science?

Livio: I think that the 20th century perhaps has seen some of this happening in almost every area of creative processes. This is where you get the most discomfort from some people with music, with visual art, and you also get the big revolutions in physics - quantum mechanics, general relativity, which go against our everyday intuition of things as basic as space and time, and so on. So, I think yes, and it is perhaps interesting that these types of revolution appear to have been somewhat coincidental. You start to think, okay, maybe the connections are not direct, but still, people think in certain ways.

Andersen: Right. But can individual scientists stay on their game and keep their minds open? Is that possible once you've gone so far down in your particular specialty and your sense of what's true?

Livio: Yeah, it is still the case if you're stuck in some sort of minimum and you want to get out of that, you need some sort of larger perturbation. You cannot rely on some infinitesimal that will get you to a big discovery.

Andersen: String Theory in particular physics is the big, cool new theory that all the cool kids believe. It's this dramatic, ambitious big leap but unproven and may be unprovable. As you think about blunders and have spent so much time looking at this, do you have a hunch that 50 or 100 years from now, we'll see that we'll have had a brilliant blunder at its core, maybe toward the truth but in some fundamental way not the truth?

Livio: We might. One of the problems with blunders is that you can only tell that they're blunders after the fact. String theory or end theory is our current best attempt at unifying all the forces of nature, but as you point out there is no real experimental evidence for it. So, it could turn out to be a wrong direction and maybe we will need to go in another direction. But, it is still the case that a lot of very interesting mathematics and many, many interesting ideas have been developed, so I think if it will turn out to be a blunder, it will most probably be a brilliant blunder.

Andersen: Mario Livio, thank you very much.

Livio: Thank you for having me.

Andersen: Mario Livio's new book is called "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein".