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Even Einstein Made Mistakes

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Did Albert Einstein's mistake about the expansion of the universe actually advance our scientific understanding?

Dr. Mario Livio says even Albert Einstein made mistakes. His biggest one involved not realizing the universe was expanding at the fast pace that it is.

Livio also says Dr. Linus Pauling made mistakes. And Charles Darwin. And Lord William Thompson Kelvin (of the temperature reading) and astronomer Fred Hoyle.

He calls these mistakes "brilliant blunders," which he defines as blunders made by brilliant men - who are often making their best decision given what is known at the time.

And although it sounds like an indictment of some of the greatest minds the world has known, he argues scientific advancement was actually helped by these mistakes.

"Mistakes are good not when they come because someone is being sloppy but because they come when somebody is trying to think in an unconventional way," Livio told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Livio said that science is not a simple, straight path to a solution or discovery but a winding road with dead ends and switchbacks. He said mistakes help that process.

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"Mistakes are part of the things that guide you in the end in this labyrinth of trying to get to the truth," he said. 

Although, Livio was quick to clarify that he wasn't talking about the kind of blunders caused by sloppy work. He said those are mistakes, just not brilliant ones.

Interestingly, what Livio points out as a silly mistake is the incorrect calibration of the mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope.

He would know. Back in 1990, when Hubble launched, Livio was on the team. He stayed on the Hubble team for 24 years, until his retirement last year.

He was part of the solution to that mirror problem three years after the launch, when a team of astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavour made five space walks to replace the eight-foot diameter mirror, and make other upgrades.

It may have been a mistake in the first place, but the fix captivated people all over the world in it's complexity and bravery.

Livio believes society as a whole should tolerate mistakes made in the right way.

"We should encourage people to think outside the box and to acknowledge the fact that if a mistake was made only because they tried to think in new ways then those mistakes are not only acceptable but are really important in some sense," he said.

He believes innovative thinking should be encouraged in schools by testing students on how they think, and in research by giving money to riskier projects that if proven correct would be a big leap forward, 

Livio said Einstein's mistake is a perfect example of a brilliant mind making a brilliant mistake.

"Some people are so smart that even when they make a blunder it turns out to be a big insight," he said. 

Dr. Livio is coming to UNLV later this week to give a lecture based on his latest book, "Brilliant Blunders." He’s famous for his lectures around the world, including TED Talks.

His other books include “The Golden Ratio: The Story of Pi” and “Is God a Mathematician?”

Guests

Dr. Mario Livio, scientist and author, "Brillant Blunders"

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