Brilliant Blunders! Sounds funny?

Recently I read an article in Project Syndicate written about brilliant blunders. In this article (the one you are reading) I am going to recapitulate the article titled “Brilliant Blunders” by Mario Livio, who has also written a book on the same topic. The writer argues that mistakes are essential for scientific progress. Moreover, “discovering what does not work is vital to learning what does.”

The article starts with the statement of Thomas Alva Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This statement sums up a fundamental truth about scientific inquiry: “the progress in science is a complex, zigzag path, involving many false starts.” The writer further argues that blunders are inevitable for innovative thinking, because they search the way for other explorers too. According to writer, “the mistakes arise from thoughtful, meticulous experimentation based on bold ideas – the kind of ideas that can lead to major breakthroughs.” The writer raises an important question whether today’s highly competitive, funding-starved scientific atmosphere can accommodate such ‘brilliant blunders’. However, he has failed to answer why modern science has failed to find its way back.

At the beginning, a researcher may have a hypothesis but he or she still has lot of unknown factors as the writer argues, “any scientific theory must be falsifiable based on existing observations or experimental results.” A scientific theory must give “specific predictions of future observations or experimental results.” If those observations or results contradict the predictions, the theory is rejected, or at least must be modified. In order to reach perfect results and sort out “truth” from “false”, we have to search the whole of reality.

The writer presents some examples to support his/her arguments. Twentieth century astrophysicist Fred Hoyle proposed Steady State model of the universe. He argued that the universe did not evolve following the so-called “big bang”, instead, it was constant, remaining the same throughout eternity. The theory, later, proved wrong and falsified. It “energized the entire field of cosmology” and proved the universe started from big bang. Similarly, nineteenth century physicist William Thomson, later known as Lord Kelvin, calculated that the earth was less than 100 million years old. When falsified, Kelvin’s insight helped to resolve problem related to the length of time needed for Darwin’s theory of evolution to operate.

The writer, now, encourages researchers and funding agencies to be open for mistakes and take risk. He presents the data that 49 percent manufacturing startups and 37 percent information startups survive for four or more years who take risk to produce breakthrough innovations. The writer presents Tom Watson, Jr., who led IBM. He insisted that startups should have the courage to take thoughtful risks. He says “We must forgive mistakes which have been made because someone was trying to act aggressively in the company’s interest.”

The writers presents example of Robert Williams, director of Space Telescope Science Institute. In 1995, he turned the face of the telescope to the other side of the target. “The result was an image of more than 3,000 galaxies some 12 billion light-years away – the so called Hubble Deep Field.” The writer again presents another case of medicine claiming “half of discoveries of new medicines have originated from accidents.”

The writer concludes that the “space for brilliant blunders is vital to achieving the kind of creative breakthroughs that drive scientific progress”, thus, funding institutions should recognize the beauty of brilliant blunders.

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