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13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time Hardcover – August 12, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; Later Printing edition (August 12, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385520689
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385520683
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 6.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #769,973 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Product Description
When we look to the "anomalies" that science can’t explain, we often discover where science is about to go. Here are a few of the anomalies that Michael Brooks investigates in 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense:

Homeopathic remedies seem to have biological effects that cannot be explained by chemistry

Gases have been detected on Mars that could only have come from carbon-based life forms

Cold fusion, theoretically impossible and discredited in the 1980s, seems to work in some modern laboratory experiments

It’s quite likely we have nothing close to free will

Life and non-life may exist along a continuum, which may pave the way for us to create life in the near future

Sexual reproduction doesn’t line up with evolutionary theory and, moreover, there’s no good scientific explanation for why we must die

Science starts to get interesting when things don’t make sense.

Science’s best-kept secret is this: even today, there are experimental results and reliable data that the most brilliant scientists can neither explain nor dismiss. In the past, similar "anomalies" have revolutionized our world, like in the sixteenth century, when a set of celestial anomalies led Copernicus to realize that the Earth goes around the sun and not the reverse, and in the 1770s, when two chemists discovered oxygen because of experimental results that defied all the theories of the day. And so, if history is any precedent, we should look to today’s inexplicable results to forecast the future of science. In 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, Michael Brooks heads to the scientific frontier to meet thirteen modern-day anomalies and discover tomorrow’s breakthroughs.

13 Things opens at the twenty-third Solvay physics conference, where the scientists present are ready to throw up their hands over an anomaly: is it possible that the universe, rather than slowly drifting apart as the physics of the big bang had once predicted, is actually expanding at an ever-faster speed? From Solvay and the mysteries of the universe, Brooks travels to a basement in Turin to subject himself to repeated shocks in a test of the placebo response. No study has ever been able to definitively show how the placebo effect works, so why has it become a pillar of medical science? Moreover, is 96 percent of the universe missing? Is a 1977 signal from outer space a transmission from an alien civilization? Might giant viruses explain how life began? Why are some NASA satellites speeding up as they get farther from the sun—and what does that mean for the laws of physics?

Spanning disciplines from biology to cosmology, chemistry to psychology to physics, Brooks thrillingly captures the excitement, messiness, and controversy of the battle over where science is headed. "In science," he writes, "being stuck can be a sign that you are about to make a great leap forward. The things that don’t make sense are, in some ways, the only things that matter."

Amazon.com Exclusive: Anahad O'Connor Reviews 13 Things That Don't Make Sense
Anahad O'Connor, The New York Times' Science Times "Really?" columnist and author of Never Shower in a Thunderstorm, reviews 13 Things That Don't Make Sense exclusively for Amazon:

Michael Brooks opens 13 Things That Don't Make Sense with an anecdote about watching three Nobel laureates struggle to figure out a hotel elevator. It's an amusing story that illustrates at least two things. One, three heads are not always better than one. And two, as every science and health reporter learns their first day on the job, even the world's greatest minds cannot always sort through the problems we expect them to conquer.

It is this latter theme that is at the core of Mr. Brooks' fascinating new book – except in this case, the problems are 13 stubborn mysteries that have stumped top scientists for decades and, in some cases, centuries. Spun out of a popular article that appeared in New Scientist – an article that quickly became one of the most forwarded articles in the magazine's online history – Mr. Brooks' book takes its readers on a lively journey through the cosmos, physics, biology and human nature. Along the way he explores questions such as why scientists cannot account for 90 percent of the universe (hint: dark matter has something to do with it), whether we have already been contacted by alien life but paid little mind, why humans rely on a form of sexual reproduction that, from an evolutionary perspective, is extremely inefficient, and why we are routinely deceived by the placebo effect.

Mr. Brooks expertly works his way through these and other hotly debated quandaries in a smooth, engaging writing style reminiscent of Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould. At times, as I was deeply engrossed in parts of this book, I found myself as captivated and wide-eyed as I was decades ago when I picked up my first science books and found my calling. Mr. Brooks has the ability to make his readers forget their surroundings – in my case a hectic newsroom – and train their minds' eyes on images as foreign as a vast Martian landscape or as distant as a roiling, infant universe. Every mystery is brought to life in vivid detail, and wit and humor are sprinkled throughout.

To be sure, some of the chapters are more entertaining than others. A section on cold fusion, for example, while understandably necessary in a book on scientific mysteries, may not turn out to be quite as captivating for some readers as the chapters that precede and follow it. That may have something to do with the notion that cold fusion has been unfairly maligned and ridiculed by scientists despite its continuing promise, an argument Mr. Brooks lays out well. But it is ultimately in his chapters on the Big Bang, dark matter, and other issues that relate to the cosmos where Mr. Brooks, who holds a Ph.D. in quantum physics, really works his magic. No surprise then that Mr. Brooks is also co-writing a TV series for the Discovery Channel that explores the universe through the eyes of none other than Stephen Hawking. If 13 Things That Don't Make Sense is any indication, the series will find an enraptured audience.

(Photo © Lars Klove)

Review

Advance Praise for 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

“WOW! is one of the things that Michael Brooks includes here—it is the signal from space that may have come from an alien civilization—but it’s also the way I feel about this book’s magical mystery tour. You will be amazed and astonished you when you learn that science has been unable to come up with a working definition of life, why death should happen at all, why sex is necessary, or whether cold fusion is a hoax or one of the greatest breakthroughs of all time. Strap yourself in and prepare for a WOW! of an experience.” —Richard Ellis, author of The Empty Ocean and Tuna: A Love Story

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Customer Reviews

This makes the book uninteresting and actually a bit painful to read.
Stephen Ryan
Don't get me wrong, Brooks obviously has a great knowledge of and respect for science, as I do.
Timothy Haugh
This book contains very good examples of the scientific method at work.
G. Poirier

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

170 of 198 people found the following review helpful By M. Narramore on December 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was very disappointed. The first chapter on dark matter and dark energy was indeed a baffling mystery of science. However, many of the 13 things were not so baffling or in a couple of cases not even serious phenomenon.

There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the person who figures out cold fusion, but until someone can actually reproduce the experiments there is no "thing" to be baffled by. Occam's razor does not suggest an alien transmission is the best explanation for SETI's "Wow" signal. The "Wow" signal was a onetime event. It is scientific frustration that we don't have more data from the event, but it isn't one of the most baffling mysteries in science.

The situation gets even worse when the author moves on to free will and homeopathy. I was hoping for a book about the frontiers of science. This was not it. Failing to prove negatives does not constitute scientific mystery.
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273 of 327 people found the following review helpful By J. Garvin on June 12, 2010
Format: Paperback
"13 Things That Don't Make Sense" is a list of things that the author apparently dearly wishes were true. If this book had been written as a exercise for the reader in identifying logical fallacies I'm quite sure I would have found it an enjoyable and educational read. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

Halfway through the book I identified the formulaic pattern by which nearly every chapter seems to have been manufactured. It goes something like this. 1) Identify some topic which the vast majority of scientists that specialize in it have reached a consensus of their general understanding of how it works. 2) Introduce crank "scientist" that has radical ideas about said topic that challenge the consensus. 3) Gain reader's trust by acknowledging a few of the more obvious arguments against the radical ideas and insincerely admit that the crank scientist might actually be wrong. 4) Spend the rest of the chapter a) promoting the radical ideas and b) ignoring, or merely giving lip service to, the more fundamental arguments that demonstrate how patently absurd the ideas actually are and c) painting the scientific community as a closed-minded dogmatic bunch of good-old-boys who don't like outsiders challenging their beliefs.

I was genuinely surprised that there wasn't a chapter titled "Evolution", as the author's pattern of attacking science seems to come directly from the play book of the Discovery Institute. In fact, it would seem that the author co-opted the "Wedge Strategy" of the DI for his own purposes.

Upon finishing the book, I concluded that the author's overarching agenda was to champion homeopathy.
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Ken Braithwaite on December 7, 2009
Format: Paperback
There are times when it is clear the author just does not understand what he is discussing. The worst chapter for this must surely be the one on sexual selection. He clearly just does not know what this is, confusing mate selection with sexual selection in places, and concluding that because some species do not seem to have suffered sexual selection that none have. At one point he cites a prediction of sexual selection as a refutation. Just an awful, awful mess. The first two chapters are quite interesting though.

MUCH better is Nine Crazy Ideas in Science: A Few Might Even Be True
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Invictus on October 29, 2010
Format: Paperback
It is difficult for a reader with no high-level scientific training to know what can be relied on, in a popular work, and what cannot. Of course, a science book written by an eminent scientist, such as a winner of the Nobel Prize, may be assumed to be correct; but such people are generally too busy to write popular science. This work, about the 13 Things, is an example of the problem.

No doubt the most famous astronomer of the 20th century was Edwin Hubble. Pretty well any popular science book dealing with astronomy or the universe discusses his discoveries. He was of course an American who lived and did his scientific work in the US; he also spent a few years, in his youth, studying at Oxford. It is puzzling indeed that this author thinks he was an Englishman. One asks the question: if you got that elementary point wrong, what else is wrong? I do not propose to multiply examples of what seemed to me to be serious errors; but his explanation of what won Einstein the Nobel Prize is surely quite misleading.

It is surely not asking much to expect that the publisher hire a competent editor to weed out obvious bloopers. in

INVICTUS
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30 of 39 people found the following review helpful By K. Arbuckle on September 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a quirky little book about 13 issues chosen by the author. These are dark matter/energy, trajectory anomalies in deep space probes, universal constants, cold fusion, life, extraterrestrial life, intelligent extraterrestrial life, an unusual virus, death, sex, free will, the placebo effect, and homeopathy. He maintains a more or less neutral position on the issues he discusses, except that he indirectly reveals his favorite theory about sex, and overtly chooses sides on the free will question.

The title is a bit misleading; it is not that these issues don't make sense, but rather they are issues that have not been resolved to the author's satisfaction (with the exception of free will - see below).

If you read popularized science books, you may have already read about many of the issues presented in this book. You will not find anything new about dark matter/energy or universal constants here. However, the book does provide a nice and fairly entertaining overview of the issues it discusses. Any overall theme is at best a loose progression from hard physics to biology to cognitive science.

The author's point of view is distinctly scientists-know-best. By that I mean that he just assumes that the only valuable input on any of these issues is to come from science. This gets him into trouble, especially in the chapter on free will. Mind you, I do not even necessarily disagree with his position, it is just that his position is shallow and imprecise. It is difficult to say more without spoilers, but he would have done better to stick to describing the issue and let others come to their own conclusion. Instead he takes a stand, and the other side never gets thoroughly presented.
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