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13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time [Format Kindle]

Michael Brooks

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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)


Chapter 1


We can only account for 4 percent of the cosmos

The Indian tribes around the sleepy Arizona city of Flagstaff have an interesting take on the human struggle for peace and harmony. According to their traditions, the difficulties and confusions of life have their roots in the arrangement of the stars in the heavens — or rather the lack of it. Those jewels in the sky were meant to help us find a tranquil, contented existence, but when First Woman was using the stars to write the moral laws into the blackness, Coyote ran out of patience and flung them out of her bowl, spattering them across the skies. From Coyote's primal impatience came the mess of constellations in the heavens and the chaos of human existence.

The astronomers who spend their nights gazing at the skies over Flagstaff may find some comfort in this tale. On top of the hill above the city sits a telescope whose observations of the heavens, of the mess of stars and the way they move, have led us into a deep confusion. At the beginning of the twentieth century, starlight passing through the Clark telescope at Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory began a chain of observations that led us to one of the strangest discoveries in science: that most of the universe is missing.

If the future of science depends on identifying the things that don't make sense, the cosmos has a lot to offer. We long to know what the universe is made of, how it really works: in other words, its constituent particles and the forces that guide their interactions. This is the essence of the "final theory" that physicists dream of: a pithy summation of the cosmos and its rules of engagement. Sometimes newspaper, magazine, and TV reports give the impression that we're almost there. But we're not. It is going to be hard to find that final theory until we have dealt with the fact that the majority of the particles and forces it is supposed to describe are entirely unknown to science. We are privileged enough to be living in the golden age of cosmology; we know an enormous amount about how the cosmos came to be, how it evolved into its current state, and yet we don't actually know what most of it is. Almost all of the universe is missing: 96 percent, to put a number on it.

The stars we see at the edges of distant galaxies seem to be moving under the guidance of invisible hands that hold the stars in place and stop them from flying off into empty space. According to our best calculations, the substance of those invisible guiding hands — known to scientists as dark matter — is nearly a quarter of the total amount of mass in the cosmos. Dark matter is just a name, though. We don't have a clue what it is.

And then there is the dark energy. When Albert Einstein showed that mass and energy were like two sides of the same coin, that one could be converted into the other using the recipe E=mc2, he unwittingly laid the foundations for what is now widely regarded as the most embarrassing problem in physics. Dark energy is scientists' name for the ghostly essence that is making the fabric of the universe expand ever faster, creating ever more empty space between galaxies. Use Einstein's equation for converting energy to mass, and you'll discover that dark energy is actually 70 percent of the mass (after Einstein, we should really call it mass-energy) in the cosmos. No one knows where this energy comes from, what it is, whether it will keep on accelerating the universe's expansion forever, or whether it will run out of steam eventually. When it comes to the major constituents of the universe, it seems no one knows anything much. The familiar world of atoms — the stuff that makes us up — accounts for only a tiny fraction of the mass and energy in the universe. The rest is a puzzle that has yet to be solved.

How did we get here? Via one man's obsession with life on Mars. In 1894 Percival Lowell, a wealthy Massachusetts industrialist, had become fixated on the idea that there was an alien civilization on the red planet. Despite merciless mocking from many astronomers of the time, Lowell decided to search for irrefutable astronomical evidence in support of his conviction. He sent a scout to various locations around the United States; in the end, it was decided that the clear Arizona skies above Flagstaff were perfect for the task. After a couple of years of observing with small telescopes, Lowell bought a huge (for the time) 24-inch refractor from a Boston manufacturer and had it shipped to Flagstaff along the Santa Fe railroad.

Thus began the era of big astronomy. The Clark telescope cost Lowell twenty thousand dollars and is housed in a magnificent pine-clad dome on top of Mars Hill, a steep, switchbacked track named in honor of Lowell's great obsession. The telescope has an assured place in history: in the 1960s the Apollo astronauts used it to get their first proper look at their lunar landing sites. And decades earlier an earnest and reserved young man called Vesto Melvin Slipher used it to kick-start modern cosmology.

Slipher was born an Indiana farm boy in 1875. He came to Flagstaff as Percival Lowell's assistant in 1901, just after receiving his degree in mechanics and astronomy. Lowell took Slipher on for a short, fixed term; he employed Slipher reluctantly, as a grudging favor to one of his old professors. It didn't work out quite as Lowell planned, however. Slipher left fifty-three years later when he retired from the position of observatory director.

Though sympathetic to his boss's obsession, Slipher was not terribly interested in the hunt for Martian civilization. He was more captivated by the way that inanimate balls of gas and dust — the stars and planets — moved through the universe. One of the biggest puzzles facing astronomers of the time was the enigma of the spiral nebulae. These faint glows in the night sky were thought by some to be vast aggregations of stars — "Island Universes," as the philosopher Immanuel Kant had described them. Others believed them to be simply distant planetary systems. It is almost ironic that, in resolving this question, Slipher's research led us to worry about what we can't see, rather than what we can.

In 1917, when Albert Einstein was putting the finishing touches to his description of how the universe behaves, he needed to know one experimental fact to pull it all together. The question he asked of the world's astronomers was this: Is the universe expanding, contracting, or holding steady?

Einstein's equations described how the shape of space-time (the dimensions of space and time that together make the fabric of the universe) would develop depending on the mass and energy held within it. Originally, the equations made the universe either expand or contract under the influence of gravity. If the universe was holding steady, he would have to put something else in there: an antigravity term that could push where gravity exerted a pull. He wasn't keen to do so; while it made sense for mass and energy to exert a gravitational pull, there was no obvious reason why any antigravity should exist.

Unfortunately for Einstein, there was consensus among astronomers of the time that the universe was holding steady. So, with a heavy heart, he added in the antigravity term to stop his universe expanding or contracting. It was known as the cosmological constant (because it affected things over cosmological distances, but not on the everyday scale of phenomena within our solar system), and it was introduced with profuse apologies. This constant, Einstein said, was "not justified by our actual knowledge of gravitation." It was only there to make the equations fit with the data. What a shame, then, that nobody had been paying attention to Vesto Slipher's results.

Slipher had been using the Clark telescope to measure whether the nebulae were moving relative to Earth. For this he used a spectrograph, an instrument that splits the light from telescopes into its constituent colors. Looking at the light from the spiral nebulae, Slipher realized that the various colors in the light would change depending on whether a nebula was moving toward or away from Earth. Color is our way of interpreting the frequency of — that is, the number of waves per second in — radiation. When we see a rainbow, what we see is radiation of varying frequencies. The violet light is a relatively high-frequency radiation, the red is a lower frequency; everything else is somewhere in between.

Add motion to that, though, and you have what is known as the Doppler effect: the frequency of the radiation seems to change, just as the frequency (or pitch) of an ambulance siren seems to change as it speeds past us on the street. If a rainbow was moving toward you very fast, all the colors would be shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum; the number of waves reaching you every second would get a boost from the motion of the rainbow's approach. This is called a blueshift. If the rainbow was racing away from you, the number of incoming waves per second would be reduced and the frequency of radiation would shift downward toward the red end of the spectrum: a redshift.

It is the same for light coming from distant nebulae. If a nebula were moving toward Slipher's telescope, its light would be blueshifted. Nebulae that were speeding away from Earth would be redshifted. The magnitude of the frequency change gives the speed.

By 1912 Slipher had completed four spectrographs. Three were redshifted, and one — Andromeda — was blueshifted. In the next two years Slipher measured the motions of twelve more galaxies. All but one of these was redshifted. It was a stunning set of results, so stunning, in fact, that when he presented them at the August 1914 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, he received a standing ovation.

Slipher is one of the unsung heroes of astronomy. According to his National Academy of Sciences biography, he "probably made more fundamental discoveries than any other twentieth century observational astronomer." Yet, for all his contributions, he got little more than recognition on two maps: one of the moon, and one of Mars. Out there, beyond the sky, two craters bear his name.

The reason for this scant recognition is that Slipher had a habit of not really communicating his discoveries. Sometimes he would write a terse paper disseminating his findings; at other times he would put them in letters to other astronomers. According to his biography, Slipher was a "reserved, reticent, cautious man who shunned the public eye and rarely even attended astronomical meetings." The appearance in August 1914 was an anomaly, it seems. But it was one that set an English astronomer called Edwin Powell Hubble on the path to fame.

The Cambridge University cosmologist Stephen Hawking makes a wry observation in his book The Universe in a Nutshell. Comparing the chronology of Slipher's and Hubble's careers, and noting how Hubble is credited with the discovery, in 1929, that the universe is expanding, Hawking makes a pointed reference to the first time Slipher publicly discussed his results. When the audience stood to applaud Slipher's discoveries at that American Astronomical Society meeting of August 1914, Hawking notes, "Hubble heard the presentation."

By 1917, when Einstein was petitioning astronomers for their view of the universe, Slipher's spectrographic observations had shown that, of twenty-five nebulae, twenty-one were hurtling away from Earth, with just four getting closer. They were all moving at startling speeds — on average, at more than 2 million kilometers per hour. It was a shock because most of the stars in the sky were doing no such thing; at the time, the Milky Way was thought to be the whole universe, and the stars were almost static relative to Earth. Slipher changed that, blowing our universe apart. The nebulae, he suggested, are "stellar systems seen at great distances." Slipher had quietly discovered that space was dotted with myriad galaxies that were heading off into the distance.

When these velocity measurements were published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, no one made much of them, and Slipher certainly wouldn't be so vulgar as to seek attention for his work. Hubble, though, had obviously not forgotten about it. He asked Slipher for the data so as to include them in a book on relativity, and, in 1922, Slipher sent him a table of nebular velocities. By 1929 Hubble had pulled Slipher's observations together with those of a few other astronomers (and his own) and come to a remarkable conclusion.

If you take the galaxies moving away from Earth, and plot their speeds against their distance from Earth, you find that the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving. If one receding galaxy is twice as far from Earth as another, it will be moving twice as fast. If it is three times more distant, its speed is three times greater. To Hubble, there was only one possible explanation. The galaxies were like paper dots stuck onto a balloon; blow it up, and the dots don't grow, but they do move apart. The very space in between the galaxies was growing. Hubble had discovered that the universe is expanding.

It was a heady time. With this expansion, the idea of a big bang, first suggested in the 1920s, bubbled to the surface of cosmology. If the universe was expanding, it must once have been smaller and denser; astronomers began to wonder if this was the state in which the cosmos had begun. Vesto Slipher's work had led to the first evidence of our ultimate origins. The same evidence would eventually bring us the revelation that most of our universe is a mystery.

To understand how we know a significant chunk of the cosmos is missing, tie a weight to a long piece of string. Let the string out, and swing the weight around in a circle. At the end of a long string, the weight moves pretty slowly — you can watch it without getting dizzy. Now pull the string in, so the weight is doing tiny orbits of your head. To keep it spinning around in the air, rather than falling down and strangling you, you have to keep it moving much faster — so fast you can hardly see it.

The same principle is at work in the motions of the planets. The Earth, in its position close to the Sun, moves much faster in its orbit than Neptune, which is farther out. The reason is simple: it's about balancing forces. The gravitational pull of the Sun is stronger at Earth's radial distance out from the Sun than at Neptune's. Something with Earth's mass has to be moving relatively fast to maintain its orbit. For Neptune to hold its orbit, with less pull from the distant Sun, it goes slower to keep in equilibrium. If it moved at the same speed as Earth, it would fly off and out of our solar system.

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Editeur : Profile Books (9 juillet 2010)
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  • Langue : Anglais
  • ASIN: B0031WHC28
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Amazon.com: 4.0 étoiles sur 5  89 commentaires
181 internautes sur 210 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Not so baffling things 11 décembre 2008
Par M. Narramore - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
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.
297 internautes sur 355 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
1.0 étoiles sur 5 The most anti-science "science" book I've ever read. 12 juin 2010
Par J. Garvin - Publié sur Amazon.com
"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.
38 internautes sur 44 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Iffy 7 décembre 2009
Par Ken Braithwaite - Publié sur Amazon.com
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
22 internautes sur 25 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Accuracy? 30 octobre 2010
Par Invictus - Publié sur Amazon.com
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

4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Contains some interesting topics, but a muddled presentation 27 décembre 2010
Par Ryan - Publié sur Amazon.com
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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