Astrophysicist and popular science writer Livio (Is God a Mathematician?, 2009, etc.) delivers entertaining accounts of how five celebrated scientists went wrong.
Darwin proposed that if one individual has a heritable advantage, such as strength, speed or brains, more of its offspring will survive, so the species will acquire this advantage and evolve. This would be impossible if, as almost everyone believed in Darwin's day, inherited traits blended, so that a black cat and a white cat produced a gray kitten. Luckily, Mendelian genetics revealed that traits reside in distinct genes that are transmitted intact. The famous 19th-century physicist Lord Kelvin calculated erroneously that the Earth was about 100 million years old, too young for evolution to occur. Linus Pauling published an incorrect structure of DNA in 1953, the year before James Watson and Francis Crick got it right. For Livio, this was perhaps the most inexcusable of blunders: a mixture of poor-quality data, haste and egotism. Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle stuck stubbornly to his 1940s steady-state theory of the universe even as evidence favoring the Big Bang accumulated, ultimately passing the last half of his life as a widely respected crank. Einstein’s 1917 theory of general relativity described an expanding universe. Since everyone considered the universe static, he added a “cosmological constant” to his equations to achieve this, discarding it when astronomers discovered expansion a decade later. Historians quote Einstein calling this his “greatest blunder,” but Livio doubts that he said it. Most of these stories are familiar, but the author’s emphasis on major errors by distinguished scientists, including their reasons and consequences, provides a thoroughly satisfactory experience even for educated readers.
An absorbing, persuasive reminder that science is not a direct march to the truth.