Wednesday, 18 February 2009

13 Things that Don’t Make Sense – Michael Brooks *****

There are two ways to cope with things science can’t get a handle on. One is Shakespeare’s. (There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.) The slightly snide dig at science. The other is to accept this is what makes science interesting, and to come at these anomalies (as Michael Brooks refers to them) with a scientific mind. Thankfully, this excellent book, subtitled The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of our Time, takes the second approach.
Brooks is breezy and fun – always readable and never dull. In thirteen chapters we discover some remarkable oddities of science. Some are reasonably well-known like dark matter and dark energy. Others less so (at least to me), like the Pioneer anomaly, where the two old Pioneer spacecraft are taking a course out of the solar system that isn’t properly explained by our current understanding of gravity – and particularly in the case of the Mimivirus, a giant virus that has many of the mechanisms of a living organism, and which Brooks uses beautifully to uncover the relatively unknown area of the remarkable nature of viruses. We also get life, death, sex, extraterrestrials and cold fusion – all explored in ways that might surprise.
In the case of cold fusion, for example, Brooks usefully shows how the science community’s concern not to appear flaky has resulted in some positive results being suppressed. This is no conspiracy, just the science herd instinct coming to the fore. He makes it clear that there are significant doubts about the original results – but equally there is evidence that there is something happening in some of the cold fusion experiments.
An obvious comparison is Michael Hanlon’s earlier 10 Questions Science Can’t Answer(you don’t have to be called Michael to write these books, but it helps). Although there is a small overlap on dark matter/energy they take quite a different approach and would be better seen as companions than rivals.
If I have any problems with the book, the tone can be just a bit too breezy sometimes, and he seems slightly less effective on medical topics. On the placebo effect Brooks seems a little confused over whether it works or not – and with his chapter on homeopathy seems a little out of date after Singh and Ernst’s Trick or Treatment. In fact, it was a shame he ended with the homeopathy chapter, as it’s the weakest. It was fine, for instance to point out structures in water – but there was nothing about how long these last (or how well they stand up to percussion). There was also a spot of skimpy fact checking. We’re told astronomer Edwin Hubble was English. (Anglophile, yes, English? No, no, no.) And that water is the only liquid that expands on freezing. Sorry, silicon and acetic acid do, and I suspect there are others.
These are small problems, though. Apart from the last one, each chapter is a little vessel of delights. I can see the appeal of the ‘how to carbonize your ferret’ style of little factoid books, but one like this that can develop each topic is so much better. Deserves to be up there as one of the best popular science books of 2008/9. Recommended.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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