When we look to the "anomalies" that science cant 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 Dont 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
Its 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 doesnt line up with evolutionary theory and, moreover, theres no good scientific explanation for why we must die
Science starts to get interesting when things dont make sense.
Sciences 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 todays inexplicable results to forecast the future of science. In 13 Things That Dont Make Sense, Michael Brooks heads to the scientific frontier to meet thirteen modern-day anomalies and discover tomorrows 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 sunand 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 dont 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)
“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