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Review: 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!,” but “That’s funny…”  — Isaac Asimov

13 Things that Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time (Vintage) begins with the above quote by Isaac Asimov that succinctly describes the premise of the book.  Author Michael Brooks takes on a tour of 13 different scientific anomalies that have stumped the most brilliant minds in science.  The subjects range from dark energy to homeopathy with Brooks giving us a detailed layman’s view of the dilemmas.

The book succeeds in piquing the reader’s interest because the mysteries are fascinating and more importantly Brooks writes in a style that is very accommodating to the non-scientist.  Some chapters are definitely more interesting than others due to either the anomaly’s paradigm changing nature or due to the veracity of the competing claims.  For example, the chapter on homeopathy was probably the least intriguing because the claims were quite a stretch scientifically and the implications, if proven correct, were not as intriguing as say, a solution to death.

The following are the chapters and anomalies that 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time (Vintage) addresses with a quick summary by myself:

1)      The Missing Universe – This chapter discusses the fact that only 4% of the Cosmos can be accounted for and it discusses the possibilities of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.  Also discussed is Einstein’s cosmological constant.

2)      The Pioneer Anomaly – Perhaps one of the more interesting chapters, it discusses the Pioneer 10 and 11 who were sent out in the 1970’s and are still traveling through the solar system though contact was lost in 2003.  The anomaly is that they are off course and no one, after decades, can figure out why.  The implication is that Newton’s laws may be faulty, however most scientist believe that it is something more mundane on the satellite that they just cannot figure out.

3)      Varying Constants – This chapter poses the thought that the numbers we consider constants may not have always been constant.  Billions of years ago they may have been different.

4)      Cold Fusion – Anyone around in the late ‘80s most likely remembers the controversy around Cold Fusion which is addressed in this chapter.  The two scientists who claimed they had shown evidence of Cold Fusion were derided as cranks when the experiment could not be repeated.  However, Brook explores the concept further and proposes the idea may not be too far out.

5)      Life – Life itself is an anomaly.  To this date no one can define what exactly constitutes life.  Therefore, we can’t even be sure how life on earth even started.  An intriguing chapter.

6)      Viking – Most of the chapters seamlessly link to each other and as we finish discussing Life Brooks takes us to the issue of life on Mars.  In a Viking mission in the ‘70s an experiment was carried out that showed life on Mars.  Due to a variety of reasons, all wrong, explained in the chapter the results were never given credence.

7)      The WOW! Signal – One of the most interesting chapters it discusses a signal that we received that cannot be explained.  Two scientists had predicted what an alien signal would be like, years later a signal that matched their prediction was received.  The signal could not possibly come from a natural source.  Make sure to read on about this anomaly.

8)      A Giant Virus – Viruses are interesting phenomena in themselves but this chapter deals with an enormous virus christened “Mimi.”  Mimi has created a controversy over the very nature of the tree of life.

9)      Death – This chapter deals with the mystery of why there is death.  The question is whether it is programmed into our genes or perhaps a result of evolution.

10)   Sex – Like the previous chapter on Death, there is no good reasoning for why sex exists.  In fact the chapter goes to explain the disadvantages of sex versus the comparative advantages of being asexual.

11)   Free Will – Perhaps the scariest implication because the definition of what it means to be humans depends on our belief that we have free will.  However, science is now showing that the depths of our free will is slowly being eroded.

12)   The Placebo Effect – Does it exist, why does it exist, how does it exist?  Those are all questions posed in this chapter which is quite interesting.

13)   Homeopathy – The final chapter is probably the least interesting anomaly because it appears to be the least scientific.  Homeopathy has some real flaws and I am surprised Brooks included it in this book which to this point was very solid.

13 Things that Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time (Vintage) is a fun and intriguing read that anybody even vaguely interested in Science and the mysteries of the Universe will enjoy.  Michael Brooks presents a well researched book and a very readable book for scientists and laymen alike.