Skip to main content

13 Things that Don’t Make Sense – Michael Brooks *****

There are two ways to cope with things science can’t get a handle on. One is Shakespeare’s. (There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.) The slightly snide dig at science. The other is to accept this is what makes science interesting, and to come at these anomalies (as Michael Brooks refers to them) with a scientific mind. Thankfully, this excellent book, subtitled The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of our Time, takes the second approach.
Brooks is breezy and fun – always readable and never dull. In thirteen chapters we discover some remarkable oddities of science. Some are reasonably well-known like dark matter and dark energy. Others less so (at least to me), like the Pioneer anomaly, where the two old Pioneer spacecraft are taking a course out of the solar system that isn’t properly explained by our current understanding of gravity – and particularly in the case of the Mimivirus, a giant virus that has many of the mechanisms of a living organism, and which Brooks uses beautifully to uncover the relatively unknown area of the remarkable nature of viruses. We also get life, death, sex, extraterrestrials and cold fusion – all explored in ways that might surprise.
In the case of cold fusion, for example, Brooks usefully shows how the science community’s concern not to appear flaky has resulted in some positive results being suppressed. This is no conspiracy, just the science herd instinct coming to the fore. He makes it clear that there are significant doubts about the original results – but equally there is evidence that there is something happening in some of the cold fusion experiments.
An obvious comparison is Michael Hanlon’s earlier 10 Questions Science Can’t Answer(you don’t have to be called Michael to write these books, but it helps). Although there is a small overlap on dark matter/energy they take quite a different approach and would be better seen as companions than rivals.
If I have any problems with the book, the tone can be just a bit too breezy sometimes, and he seems slightly less effective on medical topics. On the placebo effect Brooks seems a little confused over whether it works or not – and with his chapter on homeopathy seems a little out of date after Singh and Ernst’s Trick or Treatment. In fact, it was a shame he ended with the homeopathy chapter, as it’s the weakest. It was fine, for instance to point out structures in water – but there was nothing about how long these last (or how well they stand up to percussion). There was also a spot of skimpy fact checking. We’re told astronomer Edwin Hubble was English. (Anglophile, yes, English? No, no, no.) And that water is the only liquid that expands on freezing. Sorry, silicon and acetic acid do, and I suspect there are others.
These are small problems, though. Apart from the last one, each chapter is a little vessel of delights. I can see the appeal of the ‘how to carbonize your ferret’ style of little factoid books, but one like this that can develop each topic is so much better. Deserves to be up there as one of the best popular science books of 2008/9. Recommended.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you   
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under