Blunders of Genius: interesting errors by Darwin, Pauling, and Einstein

History has shown us that even some of the greatest scientific luminaries, towering figures such as the naturalist Charles Darwin, the twice-Nobel-Laureate chemist Linus Pauling, and the embodiment of genius — Albert Einstein — have made some serious blunders.

Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, and Albert Einstein made great contributions to science. They also made large blunders. In this original essay Mario Livio, astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and author of the new book Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, describes three blunders, and why these great minds made them. -- Mark

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When James Joyce wrote in Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery,” he meant the first part of the statement to be provocative. History has shown us that even some of the greatest scientific luminaries, towering figures such as the naturalist Charles Darwin, the twice-Nobel-Laureate chemist Linus Pauling, and the embodiment of genius — Albert Einstein — have made some serious blunders.

In Darwin’s case, he did not realize that with the theory of heredity prevailing at his time, natural selection simply could not work. Basically, the then-held belief stated that the characteristics of the two parents become physically blended in their offspring, just as in the mixing of paints, or of gin and tonic. If that were true, however, then any variation would have been inevitably lost, as all the extreme types would have vanished rapidly into some intermediate mean. Imagine, for instance, a population of one thousand white cats and one black cat. Additionally, suppose that being black confers some evolutionary advantage. In the “paint-pot theory,” the first offspring of the black cat with a white partner would be gray, and continuous mating with white cats would result in increasingly paler shades of gray. There was no way for the black cat to turn the entire population black after many generations, no matter how advantageous the black color might have been, contrary to Darwin’s vision of evolution by means of natural selection.

The solution to this problem came in the form of Gregor Mendel’s particulate genetics. In categorical contrast to blending, Mendel’s theory stated that the genes are discrete entities that are passed on unchanged to the next generation. In this sense, genetics resembles the shuffling together of two decks of cards rather than the mixing of paints — a Jack remains a Jack, no matter how many times you shuffle.

Continuing on the topic of life on Earth, Linus Pauling’s blunder concerned an ill-fated model for DNA. Having previously had enormous success in deciphering the structure of proteins, Pauling turned his attention to DNA in earnest only in November of 1952. Yet, just about one month later, he already came up with what he considered a viable model for the molecule. His model contained three helical strands (as opposed to the later, correct model by Watson and Crick, which was a double helix), was built inside-out, and was patently unstable because all the negative charges were concentrated at its center and would have driven the structure apart. How was it possible that the world’s greatest chemist would come up with such an incorrect model? There were many, fairly complex reasons for Pauling’s blunder, but largely it was hubris. Pauling fell victim to his own earlier success — a victory against a rival group of researchers — which made him feel infallible. In the words of Nobel Laureate Maurice Wilkins: “Pauling just didn’t try. He can’t really have spent five minutes on the problem himself.”

Finally, from the evolution of life we come to the evolution of the universe as a whole. Einstein’s blunder reminds us all that human logic is not mistake proof, even when exercised by a monumental genius. What was Einstein’s blunder? In 1917 Einstein first attempted to understand the entire cosmos in light of his theory of General Relativity. At the time, Einstein was convinced that the universe was unchanging and static on its largest scales. However, since he knew that every mass in the universe gravitationally attracts every other mass, he concluded that he needed to add something to prevent the universe from collapsing under its own weight. To achieve a static configuration, Einstein introduced a “fudge factor” into his equations, creating a repulsive force that precisely balanced gravity. This term became known as the “cosmological constant.” In the late 1920s, however, cosmologist Georges Lemaître and astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that our universe is in fact expanding. Einstein realized that in an expanding universe gravity would simply slow the expansion down, just as the Earth’s gravity slows down the motion of a ball thrown upward, and no precise balance was needed. He therefore removed the cosmological constant from his equations, even though the theory definitely allowed for its inclusion, and for the rest of his life regretted having introduced it in the first place. Things took an unexpected turn in 1998, when two groups of astronomers discovered that not only is the cosmic expansion not slowing down, it is in fact speeding up. Moreover, the acceleration appears to be driven precisely by Einstein’s cosmological constant! So Einstein’s blunder was not the introduction of this term, rather it was its removal. For some geniuses, what initially appears to be a mistake can turn out to be great insight.

Despite their blunders, and perhaps even because of them, the individuals I have sketched here (and others, all of whom I describe more fully in Brilliant Blunders), have catalyzed great innovations. The impact of their ideas has been felt across all aspects of the evolution of life on Earth, of the Earth itself, of stars, and of the universe as a whole. But the blunders and the reactions of these geniuses to them have also demonstrated something that modern neuroscientists have concluded: that humans are not purely rational beings capable of completely turning off their emotions. Rather, our brains integrate emotions into the stream of rational thought.

Buy Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

Published 6:11 am Fri, Jun 14, 2013

About the Author

Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. 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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16 Responses to “Blunders of Genius: interesting errors by Darwin, Pauling, and Einstein”

  1. Luther Blissett says:

    Pauling also produced a lot of other “insights”, mostly about vitamins. Still, his contributions to chemistry stand tall. He was brilliant. Just not all of the time. Which is a relief. Kindof.

  2. turtlecrk says:

    >> There was no way for the black cat to turn the entire population black
    after many generations, no matter how advantageous the black color might
    have been

    That would be the case if pure black is advantageous and dark gray is not, but selective effects are usually more gradual. If darkness confers an advantage (e.g. less visible at night), natural selection would still work fine here.  Darker cats survive better and produce more offspring, so the frequency of the black allele increases, over time.  The whiteness property would never disappear completely, but that is what usually happens in real populations, too.

    In fact, there is evidence that many genetic properties are controlled by gradual changes in the length of repetitive DNA sequences (King 1998). Since more than half of the human genome is repetitive, they may prove to be the dominant method of genetic change– meaning, Darwin was right!

  3. This is incorrect. Darwin did indeed know that blending would not work as a model for inheritance if evolution was to work. He attempted to modify the model himself into a version that would be compatible, but was never satisfied with the result. He was confident that a model for inheritance would eventually come forth that was compatible with evolution however. And of course such a model did indeed come forth as noted, in the form of Mendallian genetics. 

    • retepslluerb says:

      So kind of like Wegener, who could not offer a reason WHY the continents moved- even though he was correct in THAT they moved and how this explained all sorts of things. 

  4. Dan Hibiki says:

     http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/calico.html

    well it’s not entirely wrong… more of an oil in water thing though.

  5. forrestmacgregor says:

    This is interesting, but not unexpected.  This history of insights is that they basically never appear spontaneously.  Why would they?  One must be immersed in an inquiry. A fine brain trapped in a peasant farmer’s skull may be capable of wondrous feats of apparently magical math, but pass its life unaware of the gift.  A problem must be present, under consideration, and the subject of focused effort, at least for a while. Foreground and background processes of cognition work on the fuel of observation, manipulation, wonder, imagination.  Sometimes, for some people working on some problems structure emerges from the noise.  The challenge for most (from what I have read) is articulating the novel in forms that can be assessed.  Sometimes, the expressive tools don’t exist or aren’t as well developed as the subject’s insight.  In Einstein’s case, his first wife helped him with the math and probably should have shared some of the credit. Later, other mathematicians helped him along.    Other people later did a better job explaining Einstein than he did.  There are scores of examples.    In my own life, sometimes I have worked weeks debugging a few score thousand lines of assembly code with a minor problem ONLY to have the solution present itself to me DOWN TO THE EXACT LINE IN A PROGRAM in my SLEEP.  I wake up, so confident I just take my time to go and fix it.   Has happened enough that now I actively cultivate it.  Immersion to the exclusion of all else, then ignoring it until it solves itself.    In this respect, on my tiny scale, I have solved hundreds of problems, some quite large for an insignificant mortal.  I know the feeling of insight.  I can increase its probability in my brain.  I suspect these folks had similar processes working for them, but the key thing is …. they were looking at a problem.    I postulate that a lot of problems are already solved, but await someone to move them from the unrelated field to one where they apply.   Others are misidentified features, as was the case with PCR (polymerase chain reaction – the process that makes DNA/RNA amplification possible.)  The discoverer was trying to stop the undesirable aspect when he realized it was a feature, not a problem.  Same with minoxidyl.  Side effect of this blood pressure med was spontaneous hair growth.  People were working to counter the effect while at the same time, other folks were researching hair restoration. 

    Every now and then, a Srinivasa Ramanujan pops up wired from birth for number series comprehension, but we were only one handwritten letter to Hardy away from him dying unknown.  SR could “see” equivalences in number series like most of us can “see”
    doubling a quantity.  100 years later, analytic proofs of some of his
    work are still pending.  Every day, in China, I postulate a similar brain percolates undetected, simply because it has not been presented with the circumstances that would exercise it. 

    Good article.  Thanks.

  6. miasm says:

    I can haz italics?

  7. Dan P says:

    Not that cosmological constant nonsense again. Einstein was looking for a reasonably simple looking equation that hd all the right symmetries and fit the observations. Once you reach the point where the Einstein field equations seem reasonable there are two terms you get: one that gives you the usual Einstein equations and another involving the cosmological constant. There’s no way of knowing how big these terms should be without observation. Initial observations suggested a static universe so the size of the terms was chosen to achieve that. Later observations suggested an expanding universe so the cosmological constant term could be dropped. Finer observations after that suggested putting the cosmological constant term back in. There was no “fudge factor” and no blunder – just a number that has been adjusted over time to fit the latest observations.

    Science isn’t about personalities. What Einstein did or didn’t regret is irrelevant. If Einstein had initially left out the cosmological constant term someone else would have quickly pointed out its possibility. Einstein would have known this and anyone who even half understands general relativity would know that Einstein would have known this. So it’s nonsense to claim he seriously regretted including this term.

  8. devophill says:

    Somebody needs to insert a…  There. That should do it. Maybe not?

  9. Jon Frankis says:

    This was fun. First round may have gone to the author but all the rest go to commenters. I’d like to see several of the quality comments above applied to correction of the book, otherwise worthwhile effort though it be.

  10. Petzl says:

    Vizzini: I can’t compete with you physically, and you’re no match for my brains.

    Westley: You’re that smart?

    Vizzini: Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?

    Westley: Yes.

    Vizzini: Morons.

  11. JustAMalcontent says:

    If this article is any indication of your book, I have no interest in buying it. The article presumes that Darwin has made an error by going against the common view of heredity, rather than Darwin arguing that such a view of heredity is wrong.

  12. forrestmacgregor says:

     Admittedly, I did not verify the original sources of the biographer’s assertions.  Walter Isaacson ( http://www.amazon.com/wiki/Walter_Isaacson/ref=ntt_at_bio_wiki )  doesn’t seem to be the sort to randomly create fiction.    History, as they say, is a lie told by a fool, and biography is particularly prone to interpretation.   At the same time, a genome isn’t the only thing that makes a plant.  Dirt, water, sunlight, pathogens, predators, wind all have their parts to play in making a flower.  To deny them any credit seems pretty silly.  Who knows where inspiration comes from or where a promising path initially diverges?  Sometimes, not even the participants.    

  13. Willie Spear says:

    Einstein took Galileo’s Theory of Relativity and added in the speed of light, which he got incorrect and had to change for his theory of special relativity. Einstein didn’t say anything that hadn’t been said before. He will eventually be nothing more than a footnote in history, like Aristotle.

  14. allenesterson says:

    It is not a question of a biographer such as Isaacson randomly creating fiction, but of the recycling of contentions that do not stand up to close scrutiny. Do you think that the author of a biographical
    volume containing a great mass of information is infallible? In the Time article cited in the article linked above he wrote that Mileva Maric “helped him with the math of his 1905 special relativity paper” (9 July 2006). Have you read the paper? The level of the mathematics in that paper does not go beyond that of a competent physics major undergraduate, so it is absurd to suggest that Einstein needed help with it. The sources Isaacson cites for his corresponding statements in his biography are utterly unreliable, and contain numerous other documentable errors on the same level. Incidentally, it is also somewhat dubious for Isaacson to describe Maric as a “physicist”. She twice failed the final diploma examinations for teaching physics and mathematics in secondary school, and there is not a single known document containing any ideas of hers on physics beyond the level of her Polytechnic work. As John Stachel has written in regard to Maric, not only do we have “no published papers, no letters with a serious scientific content either to Einstein or to anyone else… we do not even have hearsay accounts of conversations she had with anyone else that have a specific, scientific content, let alone a content claiming to report her ideas” (Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’, 2002, p. 36).

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