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Why mistakes by great thinkers are important to scientific progress

Illustration for article titled Why mistakes by great thinkers are important to scientific progress

Scientists have a low tolerance for errors, but as Freeman Dyson points out in a recent New York Review of Books article, some of our most important conceptual breakthroughs — from natural selection to general relativity — first got started as big mistakes.


"Wrong theories are not an impediment to the progress of science," writes Dyson. "They are a central part of the struggle." Indeed, as Dyson rightly points out, scientists should have free license to posit imaginative and out-of-the-box theories that can eventually be re-affirmed or disproven. Or more aptly, they can be corrected, refined, and expanded upon.

This is the central message of a new book written by Mario Livio called Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. In the book, Livio reviews the work of four specific scientists, Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein.


In his review of the book, Dyson writes:

Each of them made major contributions to the understanding of nature, and each believed firmly in a theory that turned out to be wrong. Darwin explained the evolution of life with his theory of natural selection of inherited variations, but believed in a theory of blending inheritance that made the propagation of new variations impossible. Kelvin discovered basic laws of energy and heat, and then used these laws to calculate an estimate of the age of the earth that was too short by a factor of fifty. Linus Pauling discovered the chemical structure of protein, the active component of all living tissues, and proposed a completely wrong structure for DNA, the passive component that carries hereditary information from parent to offspring.

Fred Hoyle discovered the process by which the heavier elements essential for life, such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and iron, are created by nuclear reactions in the cores of massive stars. He then proposed a theory of the history of the universe known as steady-state cosmology, which has the universe existing forever without any Big Bang at the beginning, and stubbornly maintained his belief in the steady state long after observations proved that the Big Bang really happened.

Finally, Albert Einstein discovered the great theory of space and time and gravitation known as General Relativity, and then added to the theory an additional component later known as dark energy. Einstein afterward withdrew his proposal of dark energy, believing that it was unnecessary. Long after Einstein's death, observations have proved that dark energy really exists, so that Einstein's addition to the theory was right and his withdrawal was wrong.

Each of these examples shows in a different way how wrong ideas can be helpful or unhelpful to the search for truth. No matter whether wrong ideas are helpful or unhelpful, they are in any case unavoidable. Science is a risky enterprise, like other human enterprises such as business and politics and warfare and marriage. The more brilliant the enterprise, the greater the risks. Every scientific revolution requires a shift from one way of thinking to another. The pioneer who leads the shift has an imperfect grasp of the new way of thinking and cannot foresee its consequences. Wrong ideas and false trails are part of the landscape to be explored.

Much more at The New York Times Review of Books.

Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock.


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Freeman Dyson is quite quy. A certified Big Thinker™, he is known for his cosmological ideas like the Dyson Sphere, and advanced ideas about space colonies. He is Professor Emeritus at the extremely prestigious Institute for Advance Study. Less well known is his leadership of the Orion nuclear pulse rocket project in the '50s. With Ted Taylor, he and their team created an advanced design for a spacecraft powered by shaped nuclear charges. These ~1kt devices would be ejected from the rear of the spacecraft about once each second; their explosive gasses would impinge on a large plate connected to the spacecraft by a complex system of shock absorbers. The design was fully fleshed out and successful operation was predicted by (then primitive) computer simulation; it almost certainly would have worked. The spacecraft as designed would weigh thousands of tons, and could carry hundreds or thousands of tons to orbit or beyond. The project was abandoned when atmospheric nuclear explosions were banned by treaty in 1963.