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Nine Crazy Ideas in Science: A Few Might Even Be True Hardcover – May 27, 2001
The Amazon Book Review
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Do more guns mean less crime? Is AIDS caused by something other than HIV? Does our solar system have two suns? These are three of the "crazy" (some might say crackpot) ideas that physicist Robert Ehrlich explores in Nine Crazy Ideas in Science. But Ehrlich's crusade isn't to overturn established scientific thinking. His mission is to teach and promote the scientific method: techniques used to examine new ideas to see if they explain our world better than current theories do.
Ehrlich's oddball and hot-button topics keep the discussion exciting and fun. But he also points out:
Many ideas in science seemed crazy at one time but are now reported as being settled ... as in the case of plate tectonics, which grew out of an earlier "crazy" theory of continental drift.
Some of the crazy ideas relate to our lives: AIDS, gun control, sun and radiation exposure. Others are further out there, such as the double sun theory and the possibility of time travel. For each, Ehrlich scrutinizes who the idea's proponents are and what their agendas might be. He looks for internal consistency, misapplication of statistics, how open the proponents are with their data and methods, and more.
His conclusions are sometimes surprising, even to Ehrlich, who admits that his feelings about gun control changed after completing his research. Another startling finding comes in the chapter that digs into the theory that oil, coal, and gas have abiogenic origins--that they are not created from decayed vegetable matter, but were part of the Earth's original composition. A fringe, unorthodox notion, certainly. Still, substantial evidence supports the theory, and Ehrlich finds that a chemical origin for hydrocarbons better explains the observed facts.
Nine Crazy Ideas in Science makes several eccentric scientific theories accessible to general readers and, more important, it teaches methods of evaluating new ideas so we can decide for ourselves whether or not they make sense. --J.B. Peck
From Publishers Weekly
Evolution was considered a "crazy idea" 150 years agoand still is by some peoplebut within 50 years of its introduction, it was accepted by most scientists. Today a handful of scientists believe that oil and gas have not been produced by the decay of organic materials and that massive reserves exist deep in the earth. How should we go about evaluating such ideas, which may appear to be "crazy" at first glance? Here, Ehrlich, a professor of physics at George Mason University and author of other popular-science books (Why Toast Lands Jelly-Side Down), looks at nine offbeat ideas to show how seriously they should be taken. He uses a rating system of zero to four cuckoos ("why not?" to "certainly false") to evaluate the plausibility of each one. Ideas such as "More guns mean less crime" and "There was no big bang" receive three cuckoos ("almost certainly not true"). However, awarding zero cuckoos to the idea that "faster-than-light particles exist" (in his own area of expertise) but three to "AIDS is not caused by HIV" may lead readers to question his objectivity, since there is still as much to be learned about retroviruses as about tachyons. Some chapters are better argued than others: Ehrlich persuasively shows how a nonbiogenic origin for oil and natural gas is at least plausible, whereas the writing gets sloppy at times in the AIDS and time travel chapters. The author says that the book is aimed at the "general reader," but science buffs won't find much here that's new and interesting; other readers may miss the spark of excitement and enthusiasm found in the best popular-science writing.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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The analysis in last three chapters (involving time-travel, faster than light particles, and the big bang) was difficult to understand, and I went to one of the top engineering schools in the country. Ok, ok, I failed out, but I'm more likely to understand all of that than the layman.
These are the nine "crazy" ideas George Mason University Professor of Physics Robert Ehrlich examines. He rates the level of craziness of each idea by assigning zero to three "cuckoos." (A fourth cuckoo, meaning "certainly false" is not used.) Some of his conclusions might be surprising. For example, he likes the idea that oil, coal and gas have abiogenetic origins, a view I like as well, but one that goes against the conventional wisdom. He considers the idea that there was no Big Bang as "crazy"(a three cuckoo idea) as the idea that AIDS is not caused by HIV.
This certainly is a great idea for a book. Unfortunately I think Ehrlich spends too much time on the fine points of statistical analysis, especially in the first four chapters, and not enough on the crazy ideas themselves. For example on the possibility that low doses of radiation might be beneficial (Chapter 5) he gives us eleven graphs representing the data from various sources. The graphs require a significant involvement and effort on the part of the reader to appreciate, as does the accompanying analysis. If you are not familiar with statistical terms and ideas, this will be slow going.
At other times, Ehrlich seems unaware of what the reader would like to know. For example, on page 86 he mentions a "group of female workers" who "ingested radium while painting watch dials...when they put the small brushes in their mouths...to keep them pointed." He goes on to note that the radiation they received was "localized" and therefore "a number of them survived doses that on a whole-body basis would surely have been fatal." However he doesn't say how many women were involved or even give a ballpark figure. He doesn't say how those who did not die suffered. He only shows a graph giving a percentage of workers who had tumors.
In one case, I think that Ehrlich got lost in the data and failed to note the obvious. In the chapter on the possible benefits of sun exposure, he notes that the instance of coronary heart disease is less among people spending more rather than less time in the sun. He concludes that the idea is not crazy (zero cuckoos). I won't argue with that, but I suspect that the lower rates of coronary heart disease by those with more sun exposure is better understood as a result of those same people getting more exercise. Just being out in the sun implies getting more exercise that staying indoors. This is a factor that Ehrlich does not mention. He talks about gardeners being out in the sun more than non-gardeners, but seems unaware that gardening is good exercise!
I am also troubled by any analysis of causation based purely on statistical models. If the instance of lung cancer is twelve times higher among smokers than non-smokers, surely smoking is implicated. However, as in the analysis of violent crime stats in areas with more guns versus areas with fewer (from Chapter Two), the differences are in the order of small percentages. Putting aside statistical measurements of error, the fact is, as Ehrlich rightfully notes, there are so many other factors that are unaccounted for in such data that any conclusion must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.
Ehrlich admits he has "a strong affinity" (p. 11) for one of the ideas, namely that particles exist that travel faster than the speed of light. But I also think he has other biases that he may not be aware of. His enthusiasm for the possibility of time travel to the past allows him to gloss over and downplay some of the problems. For example on page 171 he notes that "we can say for sure" that "backward time travel that allowed you to kill grandpa is impossible," but he fails to note that this same logic forbids the time traveler from doing anything at all, period. The very physical presence of the time traveler would change something even if it's only at a microscopic level, even if it resulted only in microbial paradoxes! Also, chaos theory's "butterfly effect" might flap its mighty wings, disturbing future events in incalculable ways.
When Ehrlich goes easy on the stats and concentrates on imparting information and explaining in denotative language, he does very well. There is a lot of worthwhile and interesting information here for the general reader. I learned, for example, that the orbit of a planet around a binary star is only stable if the planet is at a great distance from the orbiting stars, or if one of the stars is at a great distance from the planet orbiting the other star (p. 102). Also the reason the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary is referred to as the "K-T" boundary and not the "C-T" is that "C" is already used for the Cambrian period (p. 104).
The latter chapters, especially the one on faster than light particles, were a little too technical for me. I had the sense that Ehrlich was addressing his colleagues rather than the general reader.
This is an interesting book with some controversial conclusions that will be of interest to many people, marred by not being as readable or as accessible as it might have been.
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I was skeptical about many of Ehrlich's own skepticism.Read more