Mistakes in Engineering Design
By Bill Mohr on Monday, September 27th, 2010
I recently finished reading Hans Ohanian’s book Einstein’s Mistakes. He shows Einstein making all different kinds of mistakes to get the reader to wear off the gloss that gets put on a famous physicist that his being so smart prevents him from making human errors. In fact, his greatest triumphs often started from a misconception. The General Theory of Relativity which deals with combinations of fast speeds and gravity was initially formulated with the misconception that acceleration due to local forces and acceleration due to gravity would act the same way.
Einstein‘s triumphs through his mistakes can make us remember three features of success. One is choosing a big enough problem that it is worth being wrong. Another is to say that if the problem was big enough to be worth being wrong about, it would be worth the extra effort to correct the parts that are wrong. The thirds is to be clear enough that you can find the place where the wrong part is hiding.
We also need to recognize in ourselves the symptoms of Einstein’s greatest mistake. He spent the years after World War II trying to unify the wrong forces. Physicists have unified electromagnetism, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force. But he tried to unify electromagnetic forces and gravity. These were the forces that that he had worked with ever since college. So he kept working on that combination rather than learning the new things that had come from the nuclear physicists. I know that it is difficult to change my work methods. How much more must it be difficult for people who have been celebrated for the results of their work methods.