Darwin Got It Wrong

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Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Lord Kelvin are remembered as unimpeachable geniuses. But over the course of their careers, they each made tremendous errors — not just faulty equations but fundamental misunderstandings. In Brilliant Blunders, Mario Livio showcases those failures and the surprising discoveries they lead to. “Science is presented as this direct march to the truth,” Livio, a NASA astrophysicist, tells Kurt Andersen. “Being a scientist myself, I know that’s very far from the truth. So I really wanted to give this picture of the zig-zag path with lots of false starts.”

Working in 1917, Einstein was trying to explain why gravity didn’t eventually lead to the universe collapsing on itself. In order to account for the forces that held the universe in equilibrium, he came up with a “cosmological constant,” a kind of repelling force, to his equations of General Relativity. In the 1920s, astronomers discovered that the universe was actually expanding, and Einstein, chagrined, dropped the cosmological constant that kept the universe static. By the end of the century, however, scientists would conclude that the expansion was actually accelerating. “As far as we can tell,” Livio explains, “the thing that’s driving this speeding-up is precisely that extra-repulsive term that Einstein put originally into his equations.” In other words, Einstein was right all along, but was too stubborn to see it.

Kurt wonders if the popular but so far unproved concept of string theory could be the blunder of our generation of physicists. Livio wouldn’t mind if that were the case. “Very interesting mathematics and ideas have been developed that even if it turns out to be a blunder, it will most likely be a brilliant one.”

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