National Geographic

Brilliant Blunders: My Review for the New York Times

livioScience is not a string of successes. It has its share of errors and misconduct, and acknowledging them does no disservice to the value of scientific research that stands the test of time. So it was a pleasure to review a new book, Brilliant Blunders, by Marco Livio, for the New York Times Book Review. No one is perfect, Livio shows us, even some of the greatest scientists of the modern age. Check it out.

There are 5 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Donald Forsdyke
    June 8, 2013

    Nice review but, at least concerning Darwin, it seems that Livio himself blundered. It has long been known that when a black human crosses with a white human most of the children are a blend – seldom are any completely black or completely white. And when a tall human crosses with a small human, the children are usually of intermediate sizes – again, blending inheritance. We now know that characters such as skin color and height result from the interactions of many genes – they are multigenic characters. Many characters are multigenic, so blending is a rule not an exception. Although unaware of Mendel, Darwin was aware of the all-or-none inheritance of certain characters, sex being an obvious example. When a male human crosses with a female human, the children are never intermediate – they are either male or female. There is no blending. We now know that non-blending inheritance tends to associate with unigenic characters. Darwin and Hooker pondered this in 1860 when discussing the crossing experiments reported by Naudin in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in the 1850s. For more on this please see my Origin of Species,Revisited (2001), or my YouTube videos on blending inheritance ( ).

  2. Ralph Dratman
    June 8, 2013

    It seems to me that you are failing to distinguish between badly-conducted science and ordinary incorrect hypotheses. The former might be avoided or at least minimized by continual review, but the latter are intrinsic components of scientific inquiry. Every scientific hypothesis is expected eventually to be proved mistaken in some respects — thereby illustrating the perpetual radicalism of science in a world dominated by habit and repetition.

    Furthermore, a partly incorrect hypothesis is not necessarily worthless. For example, General Relativity has supplanted Newton’s theory of gravity, yet without the prior success of Newtonian physics, it is hard to imagine that Einstein’s insightful theory could have been formulated.

  3. David B. Benson
    June 12, 2013

    My understanding of Einstein’s general relativistic field equations is that in the simplest manifolds usually studied, the equations naturally imply an expanding universe, not a collapsing one. So Einstein added his cosmological constant to prevent expansion. Of course once Hoyle had shown that the universe was expanding, the cosmological constant was now longer necessary. But now, due to dark energy, it is once again but with the opposite sign.

    In any case, I’ve never previously seen any mention of a ‘cave in’.

    • Ralph Dratman
      June 13, 2013

      My understanding is that it was Hubble who first suggested, based on red shifts he had observed, that the universe is expanding. Hoyle was advocating, separately, his theory of a steady-state universe, with no “Big Bang” event at the beginning. Hoyle believed the universe expands by constantly creating new matter.

  4. David B. Benson
    June 14, 2013

    Ralph Dratman — Yes, my error. Thank you for the correction.

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