13 Things That Don't Make Sense, By Michael Brooks

Tackling the mysteries of science
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The Independent Culture

Science has brought us plenty of things that don't make sense in the last hundred years or so. The properties of the quantum world, in particular, will mess with your head. Science writer Michael Brooks started life as a quantum physicist, but his quarry in this entertaining book lies elsewhere. He is on the track of internal inconsistencies, unexplained phenomena and observations that fall off the chart. Any one, he reckons, could lead science in unexpected new directions.

His baker's dozen of mysteries begins with the dark matter (or dark energy) which upsets cosmologists. Most of the mass which the movements of stars and galaxies tell us ought to be out there is undetectable. So is it really there? If so, what in hell is it?

The path of the Pioneer space probe, launched beyond the solar system in the 1970s, has it moving under gravity, Jim, only not quite as we know it. Light from the most distant stars – emitting their spectra the longest time ago – seems to suggest that the constants of physics may have shifted subtly since the early days of the universe.

Cold nuclear fusions still puzzle physicists. Then come biologists' difficulties in defining life, and a giant virus which challenges the conventional account of life on Earth.

There is space to squeeze in two mysteries which trouble us all. Why sex? Why death? After many big thinks, biologists can't explain either satisfactorily. Finally comes a look at the placebo effect, which may or may not be real, and homoeopathy, which really ought to be in another book.

Brooks is less surefooted in biology than in physics. His philosophy of science is pretty rudimentary, too. His reading of Thomas Kuhn's ramshackle account of how science changes basically says that, as scientific revolutions are preceded by lots of anomalous observations, every anomaly can start a revolution.

This is a convenient way to frame this assortment of anomalies, but deeply unconvincing. The reasons for an old theory being given up are complex and demand close study; they are not going to get it in a book like this. It is engagingly written, though, and the overall result is a worthwhile read for budding explorers of new worlds.