Don’t worry, this isn’t only the third new-to-me book I read this year – between the last of these posts and this one I also read five other books I’d not read before (as well as usual rereads, comics etc) but I’m planning on submitting some writing to the series that they are connected to (part of the reason for reading them) so don’t want to review them here. I’ve also just picked up a few more books (it’s payday) so over the next couple of days expect posts on Dead Romance by Lawrence Miles and The People’s Manifesto by Mark Thomas.
13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brook is one of the most interesting – and recommendable – pop-science books I’ve read in a long time (and I read a lot of pop-science books).
One of the things that worries me about the New Atheism and the Rationalist movement is its attitude to what Charles Fort referred to as Damned Data. A lot (by no means all) of the media representatives of this movement seem to regard disagreement with the current scientific consensus as being heresy – which seems to me to be a fundamentally unscientific attitude. (Richard Dawkins, for example, has condemned a creationist documentary that interviewed him under false pretences and re-edited the footage in ways he disagreed with, but he did exactly the same to Rupert Sheldrake. I happen to think that Sheldrake is wrong, but one should still use intellectually honest arguments, even against those who *are* wrong…)
(Which is not to say the majority of such disagreements aren’t cranks and quackery – they are. But some are very far from that. I *MUST* at some point get round to blogging about orthomolecular medicine, for example…)
Brooks, a consultant to New Scientist, takes the opposite – and to me, more scientific – approach here, by looking at anomalous results – the places where our theories and the data don’t quite match up.
Opening with a quote from Isaac Asimov – “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘that’s funny…'” – Brooks takes us on a tour through most of the major scientific disciplines and looks at what we *don’t* know. He divides this into thirteen ‘things that don’t make sense’ as follows:
The Missing Universe – he looks at ‘dark matter’, ‘dark energy’, and various not-yet-accepted physical theories that do away with these concepts.
The Pioneer Anomaly – the Pioneer probes, sent out in the 1970s, are now thousands of miles away from where the theory of Relativity says they should be.
Varying Constants – the growing evidence that the ‘universal constants’ used to be different.
Cold Fusion – the growing body of evidence that suggests Pons and Fleischmann found *something* – maybe not cold fusion, but *something* – in their career-ending experiments.
Life – why have we not yet been able to synthesise life from elementary chemicals?
Viking – the Viking probe found evidence of life on Mars – one of the experiments that it ran gave *exactly* the result predicted if there were living organisms in the Martian soil. This has never been followed up on.
The WOW! Signal – a brief (sub-second) signal that looks very much like the work of intelligent life, but has never been repeated.
A Giant Virus – a virus found in Bradford that appears to be an evolutionary ‘missing link’ (sorry for the term) between bacteria and viruses.
Death – why *do* we die? Can it be stopped?
Sex – why all the current evolutionary explanations for sex fall down.
Free Will – scientific evidence that it doesn’t exist, and what this might mean for society.
The Placebo Effect – the evidence that it’s much stronger than thought when it comes to depression and pain, but has *no effect whatsoever* when it comes to physical problems, and what this means for the current medical orthodoxy of double-blind placebo-controlled trials.
And most controversially of all, Homeopathy – he shows that there is a *tiny* bit of evidence that a *small* proportion of homeopathic ‘medicines’ might actually work, and some suggested physical mechanisms for this, even while clearly showing that most of it is the nonsense we all accept it to be.
Looking through this list, some of it is probably explicable by experimental error or outright fraud (my guess is that the evidence for homeopathy falls into that category), but at least some of these things will radically rewrite parts of our understanding of the universe.
But the good thing about this book is that even when he’s talking about these things, Brooks is *NOT* doing it in a new-agey, ‘there are things that science will never understand, wisdom of the ancients’ kind of way. He is motivated by an excitement in discovery, and in the scientific method. For him, the idea that there are things we don’t know, or things we’ve got wrong, is not a threat, and it’s better to waste time on a wild goose chase occasionally in order to find something genuinely revolutionary than to dismiss out-of-hand any anomalous data or wild hypotheses.
My guess is that at least seven or eight of the things talked about in this book will turn out to be wild-goose chases of that nature, but that among the others is an account of someone who in a century will be spoken of in the way we now speak of Einstein, Darwin or Newton (or at least Crick or Watson or Curie or Pauling).
This has fired up my imagination far more than most books of its ilk, and as long as you accept (as Brooks clearly states) that the stuff talked about in it is the very opposite of ‘established fact’, I can guarantee it will be a fascinating read for anyone interested in science.