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13 Things that Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time Paperback – August 11, 2009

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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)

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“This elegantly written, meticulously researched and thought-provoking book provides a window into how science actually works, and is sure to spur intense debate.” –New Scientist

“A boundless enthusiasm resounds through this homage to the outstanding problems of science.”
Seed Magazine

“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.”
–Richard Ellis, author of The Empty Ocean and Tuna: A Love Story

“Fascinating. . . . Brooks expertly works his way through . . . hotly debated quandaries in a smooth, engaging writing style reminiscent of Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould.”
–Anahad O'Connor, author of Never Shower in a Thunderstorm
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (August 11, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307278816
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307278814
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #112,406 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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It is always interesting to see evidence that different people can read the same thing and take away different things based on their particular background and beliefs. The vehement one star reviews condemn the science in this book and attribute a specific "holistic" prejudice on the part of the author. Which is interesting considering that the author has a PhD in quantum physics and actually got his name on a ballot in the UK to run against a "pseudo-scientist" who supports alternative medicine and astrology. But his publications are also in non-peer reviewed journals so he is probably not a leader in his field.
I didn't find any particular slant to this other than a desire to challenge the idea that we have the answers to anything let alone everything. I found the history of various scientific theories and hypothesis, as well as the scientific community's reaction to new ideas, fascinating. But by far the most interesting part was the emphasis on real or perceived anomalies in accepted scientific theories.
As Sheldon Cooper points out "Physics is the study of everything". It is unrealistic to expect a relatively short book to give an accurate detailed study of everything in the universe. What this does give is an overview of some different scientific theories and allows the reader to pursue a more in depth look at whatever area they find most interesting.
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