How a Scientist Gets Things Wrong

Albert Einstein, writing to fellow physicist Hendrik Lorentz in 1915, describes how a scientist gets things wrong:

1. The devil leads him by the nose with a false hypothesis. (For this he deserves our pity.)

2. His arguments are erroneous and sloppy. (For this he deserves a beating.)

“Einstein himself certainly committed errors of both types,” the astrophysicist Mario Livio writes in, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe.

“More than 20 percent of Einstein’s original papers contain mistakes of some sort,” Livio writes. “In several cases, even though he made mistakes along the way, the final result is still correct. This is often the hallmark of great theorists: They are guided by intuition more than by formalism.”

Carl Zimmer, in his New York Times review of Brilliant Blunders, describes some of Charles Darwins “mistakes:”

When Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution in 1859, he built a foundation for all of modern biology. Crucial to his theory was the fact that animals and plants inherited traits from their ancestors. Natural selection favored some traits over others, giving rise to long-term change. But Darwin didn’t know how heredity worked. He devoted a lot of time to developing ideas that, in hindsight, seem daft. “Darwin had been educated according to the then widely held belief that the characteristics of the two parents become physically blended in their offspring,” Livio writes, “as in the mixing of paints.” By this logic, each ancestor’s genetic contribution would be halved in each generation.

This idea wasn’t just wrong. It undermined Darwin’s own theory of evolution. If our traits are just a result of blended particles, it shouldn’t be possible for natural selection to change traits over the generations. But try as he might, Darwin couldn’t figure out a better explanation.

Yet right around the time that Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” the Czech monk Gregor Mendel was discovering genetics. Crossing pea plants in his garden, he got a glimpse at how heredity actually does work. Darwin apparently never became aware of Mendel’s work, nor did he discover Mendel’s results for himself.

Still curious? Read the book