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on December 10, 2008
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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on June 12, 2010
"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. All the preceding chapters were a setup to undermine the reader's trust in the scientific community and it's ability to accurately answer questions about the world around us. The author clearly wants homeopathy to be true so bad that he's resolved to believe in it until the scientific community can prove to his satisfaction that it doesn't work. At the top of page 195, he states that "[The Scientific Community has] failed to prove homeopathy's inefficacy. Yet again." and in the next paragraph states that, "Given more than two centuries science has failed to show that homeopathy is bumkum."

Anyone with a sensible grasp of how science works knows quite well that it is not the responsibility of the scientific community to prove that homeopathy does not work. The onus is on those who claim that it does work to provide clear, repeatable, evidence to support their claim. To paraphrase the author, Given more that two centuries, homeopathy proponents have failed to produce *even one* truly homeopathic remedy that that can reliably and consistently treat *even one* medical condition under strict double-blind controls. In the absence of such evidence, to even believe that homeopathy might work, is nothing more that wishful thinking and those actively selling true homeopathic remedies are engaging in fraud.

On page 200 the author briefly dances around the argument that the extremely high dilution ratios in true homeopathy are actually the problem. He states that "dilution and succussion - to most, the very essence of homeopathy - could not just be a waste of time but the root of homeopathy's problems." But then he fails to take that to it's logical conclusion, that if you stop diluting these "remedies" to absurd degrees and actually provide a substance with enough molecules of active ingredient remaining, then the active ingredient will have a predictable effect on the patient. But that's not homeopathy anymore, that's how real science based medicine works.

There are a few medicines that market themselves as "homeopathic" but are actually real medicine provided in safe, clinically proven, dilution levels. In this case, the word "homeopathic" is just a clever marketing term to take advantage of the public's ignorance of what homeopathy is. Most active ingredients in real medicine are not safe to take in their pure form and are normally diluted to safe levels. But, if you're going to call these kinds of medicine "homeopathic", then you might as well call your morning coffee "homeopathic". Just remember, homeopathic dilution makes the substance stronger, so don't dilute your coffee too much or you won't be able to sleep for weeks.
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on December 7, 2009
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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on October 29, 2010
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

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on December 27, 2010
A decent overview of some the unsolved questions that modern science is currently puzzling over (how to explain all the "missing" matter in the universe) or lacks the data to answer conclusively any time soon (is there life on other planets? do we really have free will?). Then there are a few chapters concerning what might be described as fringe science (e.g. cold fusion, the placebo effect, homeopathic medicine). While I appreciate the spirit of inquiry, I suspect that homeopathic medicine is probably not one of the great mysteries occupying scientific minds today.

Unfortunately, the author's style is a bit fragmentary -- he drops a lot of names and technical information, but doesn't make the core controversies quite as clear as they could be, or provide the satisfying overview one might get from a book focused solely on astrophysics, space exploration, or biology. Regarding the "fringe science", the author's discussion of the side making the incredible claim is extremely lightweight. Sure, maybe the cold fusion people are somehow right, and the mainstream scientific community will be proven wrong, but this writer hasn't elucidated anything compelling about that particular mystery, if it even is a mystery, for me.

Still, the book expressed an interesting theme: the scientific community has always had trouble accepting anomalous data that suggests that current theories on something might be flawed -- those who have staked their careers on an existing model aren't eager to see it overturned, and those who might try to explain the data using a new framework must put their own reputations on the line. Thus, it takes a while for "hey, the galaxy isn't expanding the way Einstein's theory predicts" to become an issue scientists are willing to talk about. For this somewhat disquieting revelation and the fact it'll probably whet your appetite for other science reading, this book's certainly worth a library check-out.
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on May 2, 2012
As a scientist who picked this book up by mistake, I find myself in anger by the garbage in this book. It makes me wonder if Michael Brooks is in need of some economic support, this time by throwing away his dignity and self-worth. To address the points in the book; 1. Homeopathy; explained by a well-known phenomena called 'placebo' 2. Methane is not only a product of biology, but a gas that can be produced in hundreds of different ways. It's just carbon and hydrogen bonded together, CH4. Mars is as old as the earth, 4.6 billion years old, the atmosphere is mostly CO2, with traces of hydrogen and hydrogen peroxide. In extreme temperatures and pressures, like beneath the crust, you would expect the molecules to decompose and recombine. Both water H2O and CO2 can decompose at high temperatures and pressures, something we would expect if Mars has been active in the past.

4. There is no evidence that cold fusion has occurred, and to say that cold fusion is impossible is just stupid. Being dishonest is not the way to go when writing a book. 5. We don't have free will, that has never been a controversy, a world with free will would be impossible. 6. Sexual reproduction is perfectly explained by evolutionary theory, sexual reproduction is the only way to increase genetic diversity and it makes organisms the ability to change faster - following drastic changes in nature. A species can change a lot more and a lot faster if it has two sets of DNA to work on and intermingle, there's a reason why asexual species stay almost unchanged for millenia. 7. The universe is expanding, yes. 8. The placebo effect has been explained, and it makes perfect sense for any biochemist. Hormones and neurotransmitters changes the way you think, and the way you feel -- these chemicals are produced by the brain, so it "makes sense" that they way you think influences the way you feel. If a human being 'thinks' that something good will happen, the body will produce noradrenalines, known to increase feelings of happiness, good and arousing feelings.

9. No 1977 signal is from an alien signal. 10. Might viruses explain how life began? Most likely not. The evidence today tell us that viruses branched off from plasmids, which branched off from bacteria. Viruses depend on a host to live, so to think that viruses could explain how life began is ... maybe you should write about something you do know about. 11. I thought the speeding up of the satellites was explained by electromagnetic radiation, as photons and other particles carries energy or momentum, as they reflect off the satellite some energy will be transferred to the satellite, without any air resistance of friction, this will cause some acceleration.

Good tip; don't dive into pseudoscience and quackery to sell a book. We have enough New Age nonsense to deal with.
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on September 7, 2008
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.

At the same time, he does raise challenges to current mainstream science, but even then everything is cast as a Kuhnian moment.

The author's choice of sources was sometimes odd; there were much better sources to draw from in discussing life for example. The author seems to have a particular affection for Carl Sagan, who, while popular, never impressed me with his insight (or lack of insight).
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on August 12, 2009
It's probably flaky to delete my (3 out of 3 people found this helpful) review just to up the book's rating from 1 to 2 stars, but I didn't know how else to do that. It's a lesson to me -- think before saving! 1 star was unfair.

I got it and started listening to it with all the sympathy in the world.

It's such a mishmash of true mysteries and belligerent cranks-are-rightism that it's completely useless, because there's no systematic way to tell what's what.

Michael Brooks is teaching people exactly how NOT to think about a scientific controversy. Cherrypicking, prejudicial language and revisionist history abound. Then again, it also has a lot of real mysteries and some people in science ARE too smug and their world is too small.

It's not wrong, precisely, just the soil in which science denialism grows. My feeling reminds me of what Richard Feynman told me about the Tao of Physics, Dancing Wu Li Masters, etc. "I get just so far in them and I can't physically turn another page. I just can't take any more and I have to close it."
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on December 4, 2012
It's not so much that things like cold fusion, the placebo effect, dark matter, death, and sex don't make sense, it's just that we can't figure out why or whether these semi-observable effects seem to work, exist, or be possible at all. I mean, 'free, safe energy, forever' makes sense, but is cold fusion real? Sex (perhaps to everyone except a guy who spends all his nights at the lab) makes sense, but is it the best manner for reproduction?

As it turns out, scientific researchers are humans like the rest of us. It's not that they're not excited by concepts like dark matter and eternal life, it's just that they'll have to take the risky steps of saying their science buddies and predecessors - guys like Einstein, Newton, and Darwin - were wrong about some stuff. And that's hard to do, even for a nerd.

What the author is telling us is that Albert, Isaac, and Chuck won't care (and not just because they're dead) if our current science pokes holes in older science. Science has its problems, but it's supposed to or it wouldn't be science. A good thing, especially for scientists who aren't afraid to address those problems. The foundation and justification for their work - for the scientific model - is that it's okay to get things wrong in the course of trying to get them right.

From physics to chemistry to biology to anthropology to psychology to cosmology, stuff happens all around us all the time that flies in the face of everything that science - and often common sense - says is true and real.

Like sex. Biology says, `it's pointless'. Like space. Physics says, `96% of it is missing.' Like Martians. Chemistry (arguing with physics) says, `they exist, or they could'. This book is loaded with conundrums like that.

The author's approach to discussing these puzzles (thesis-antithesis-whoknowsthesis) is a little predictable, and Brooks clearly is laboring under biases - the chapter on `Free Will' is laughably bad - however, the cosmological disputes that take up the first seven chapters render "13 Things", overall, a good, accessible read, and a welcome addition to the popular science genre.

I found the chapters most directly involving biology & psychology to be weak, and his arguments wobbly. Perhaps because they lie outside the author's own area of scientific concentration; Brooks is a physicist after all, not a biologist. I don't know. Dang. That's 15 things.

At the very least, "13 Things" provides a solid reassurance that blind orthodoxy will not be replacing real science - or its method - any time soon.
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on September 9, 2009
Point by point response to the review

Things That Don't Make Sense:
"Homeopathic remedies seem to have biological effects that cannot be explained by chemistry"

When properly controlled studies are done all correlations on the efficacy of homeopathy disappear. It's actually possible to disprove homeopathy at home. Take a single drop of coffee and put it in your city's water supply intake. If homeopathy is correct then this super dilute amount should induce the opposite effect: it should make everyone extremely tired.

Now when everyone else is sleeping, rob all the banks in your town

Homeopathy, if true would mean that all the trace chemicals in the enviroment would have an enormous effect on us. A glass of water would contain in it all the traces of absolute chemical chaos and would tear us down

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

What GASES? There's hardly any atmosphere, and of that all can be created by non biological sources. There are few things that can only be said to have come from biological sources complex proteins would be an example. If you found that the red of mars was because of hemoglobin, then... wow it's a slam dunk.

But even if we were to take this at face value: let's provisionally accept this as evidence of life on mars. How does this belong in the list of 13 things that don't make sense? There's nothing that says there can't be life on mars. A piece of evidence can only be said to not make sense if it contradicts something. Many reasonable scientists have reasoned that the possibility of chemotrophic bacteria or analogs of a totally separate primordial genesis might be present on Mars. On Earth we find bacteria in boiling water in hot springs, on volcanic vents on the ocean floor surrounded by extreme pressures with high heat and bathed in sulfuric acid, miles underground in mines eating bands of iron. We find them everywhere! For every extreme condition on mars there is something that we know of on earth that can thrive in that niche

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

So I suppose this is another example of "THE MAN" keeping us down? Hmmm.....

"It's quite likely we have nothing close to free will"

We cannot assign likelyhood or probability to something like this simply because finding a place for free will would require that we know EVERYTHING. And science cannot investigate such claims ultimately. IT can show that so far we've been able to show that neurobiology proceeds from physical events.

No greedy reductionism needed

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

This is actually true. Good job for once! Protobionts display nearly all the properties of life. As well many non living things satisfy some of the requirements for being called living. Crystals are complex, grow, require resources, use energy, and pass on their specific structure. Fire uses energy, grows and reproduces.

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

1. We have some good ideas, read the book "The evolution of sex" by John Maynard smith as well as "the evolution of sex" by George C Williams. Then pick up "the Red Queen hypothesis by matt ridley for some ideas about this.
2. Disposable soma theory explains why things die. Whenever health and reproductive success become unlinked, evolution sides with reproductive success.

Also, evolution has been formed based on the assumption that on average things die at an average age. Development involves the complex timing of many factors and so evolution might just not have taken into account any "Methuselah Selection" properties.
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