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Review: Rise of the Vulcans by James Mann

Realize: When George W. Bush was elected as President he had no prior foreign policy experience and frequently bumbled on naming other foreign leaders.  Not only did Bush have no experience, he also did not have a basic rudimentary conception about America’s role in the world or specific foreign policy other than his campaign platitudes against “nation building.”  To strengthen that weakness, Bush sought to surround himself with a cabinet team of experienced and trusted members that he could ultimately rely on to help him forge a path.  Enter the Vulcans.  Author James Mann puts together an enthralling account of the rise of the Bush cabinet and their place in the last 30 to 40 years in contemporary history with his book Rise Of The Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet.

Broadly, the book is the mini biographies of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condoleeza Rice.  However, by detailing the careers of these people Mann also gives the reader great insight into modern foreign policy, from the Nixon era to Bush II.  The book was published in 2004 so it lacks the hindsight that we now have 6 years later with regards to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, yet this detracts not at all from the book.  Rise Of The Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, I have no doubt, will become a central reference point to any future inquisitor looking into American policy from the 1970’s on.

Many may be tempted to classify all of the subjects as neoconservatives, however one of the driving themes of the book is the role of the foreign policy realists versus the idealists (neo-cons).  Yet this was not just a battle that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union as some may have asserted.  Even in the midst of the Cold War, there was definite conservative in-fighting between the pragmatists, led by the Kissinger camp, and the neo-cons, who believed that America’s military might must be unchallenged.  Rumsfeld opposed Kissinger’s policy of détente and played an active role in the Ford Administration in decreasing the power and influence that Kissinger once had.

While Rumsfeld and Cheney believed mightily in American military might and hegemony, it might be hard to classify them as idealists of spreading democracy throughout the world.  However, Paul Wolfowitz meets the classic definition of neoconservative which spread from the Dixie Democrats who left the Democratic Party to join the Republicans in the Reagan Revolution.  Wolfowitz was an academic greatly admired for his intelligence.  He was highly influenced by the ideology of Leo Strauss and was also mentored by Scoop Jackson, US Senator from Washington.  Wolfowitz spent his whole career in the Defense Department and focused on policies that opposed the ideas of moral relativity or balance of power.  Instead Wolfowitz operated from a stance that Democracy and justice were grand ideas that should be spread throughout the world through the might and force of the US military.  It should also be noted that Wolfowitz had been focused on Iraq as a threat to Middle East stability long before the Middle East was on anybody’s map.

Powell and Armitage were often the counter balance to the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Cheney forces, not only in Bush II but also Bush I.  Powell was also a dynamic political figure who ascended Washington’s power structure with amazing speed and was always an admired figure.  Both Powell and Armitage believed in a strong American military and were proponents of a hefty defense budget.  However, where they differed from the other cabinet members was in how the use of force should be applied.  Powell believed that if force was to be applied it must be done with the support of the public, with overwhelming force, and with a clear, communicable goal in mind.  This mindset, shared by Armitage, became known as the Powell Doctrine and was shaped by the experience of Vietnam.  The Vietnam experience made Powell and Armitage suspicious of the civilian leaders like Rumsfeld and Cheney who may recklessly damage the military and American power by engaging long term commitments with no exit plans.

Condoleeza Rice was mentored in the camp of Brent Scowcroft who was a realist.  Rice, a specialist in Russia, came to government in the first Bush Administration and made a lasting impression on everyone she worked for.  When George W. Bush was putting together a foreign policy team during his campaign, he instantly connected with Rice on a personal level and made her a central part of putting together his foreign policy.  Mann portrays Rice as somewhat amorphous, her ideas and beliefs are seemingly tied to the politics and she oftens acts as a sounding board to Bush II.  Instead of becoming a proponent of her realist background, she instead starts to reflect the President and his beliefs which were largely shaped by the dominant members of his cabinet.  In other words, Rice aimed to please, it seems, more than to persuade.

The book culminates with the decision to invade Iraq and Mann sums up that decision as a reflection of the Vulcan’s world view with four themes:

  1. The belief in the centrality and efficacy of American Military power.
  2. The belief in America as a force for good around the globe.
  3. The unfettered optimism of American capabilities and the rejection of American decline.
  4. The reluctance to enter into agreements or accommodations with other countries.

Mann makes an understated point that most historians make a clear distinction, a line in the sand, marking the end of the Cold War as the distinctive point where American foreign policy changed.  Yet, it started to occur much earlier than that with the rise of these Vulcan’s and their world view.  The end of the Cold War was merely a middle point in the chapter.  The fact that the US has mostly had Republican Presidents in the last 40 years the Vulcans have remained in power and shaped the events of modern history and to understand that story you have to understand their story.  James Mann gives a clearly written and highly detailed account of some of the most influential actors in American politics.  Rise Of The Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet is an utterly fascinating account and should be read by anyone seeking answers on the role of America in the world today.

Review: What Happened by Scott McClellan

What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan is the second book that we are reviewing in an informal exploration of the Bush Presidency and contemporary history. As opposed to the previous review of Frum’s account of the White House, which was pro-Bush, McClellan’s account is, at times, highly critical. It was published in 2008 and became a bestseller because of the fact that McClellan was notable for being one of the few inside Bush’s cabal to break ranks and criticize the Presidency. To be fair, most of the criticism in the book is not directed so much at Bush than the people he surrounds himself with.

McClellan was hired by Karen Hughes, Bush Communication Director, when Bush was still Governor of Texas. McClellan details his early political career and the opportunity to join Bush in the White House as Deputy Press Secretary, before taking over or Ari Fleischer in 2003. McClellan would eventually “resign” or be forced out, depending on perspective, in 2006. The book details most of the Bush Presidency but is focused on the following issues: the evidence presented to the public to justify a pre-emptive war in Iraq, the Valerie Plame leak and its repercussions, and Hurricane Katrina.

The book functions on two levels: the analytical and the anecdotal. On the analytical side, McClellan uses an overarching theme to describe what happened in the Bush Presidency, the “permanent campaign.” McClellan makes the argument that the permanent campaign is a constant politicking which shapes the governance of the nation.

“the permanent campaign referred to the process of governing in a way that builds and sustains public support for an administration and its policies. In this sense, continual political campaigning is the means by which any administration exerts a lasting impact on the nation, since policies that the public doesn’t understand or support are likely to be short-lived and ineffective.”

He argues that the Clinton Administration perfected it and that Bush campaigned as the Anti-Clinton, only to fall in the same trap. The main villain behind this permanent campaign is the Machaivellian Karl Rove, who is wholly unique in Presidential politics, in the sense that he ran public policy campaigns out of the White House and was not an administrator of policy but marketer of policy. According the McClellan, the permanent campaign is the main culprit behind the secrecy and dishonesty that occurred with the “16 words” to sell the Iraq War and the Valerie Plame affair. The criticism that follows over Hurricane Katrina was that the administration was caught off guard because of over confidence and that the blowback from the previous years of deception lost all public belief and support in the Bush Presidency. McClellan’s analysis of the permanent campaign and its effect on the Bush Presidency is probably slightly exagurrated but in general is one good explanation of the faults of the President and his Cabinet. However, his solution for change is over simplistic and optimistic. McClellan proposes that in order to change a culture of deception in concrete terms is to basically institute a new cabinet position, deputy chief of staff for governance. That staff position “would be responsible for making sure the president is continually and consistently committed to a high level of openness and forthrightness, and transcending partisanship to achieve unity.” Ok, create that position, the question is what would have hindered Bush from putting Karl Rove in that position?

On an anecdotal level the book succeeds. Compared to David Frum who was on a somewhat outer level position, McClellan is really in the inside circle in most regards. He associates daily with the President and is able to write interesting portrayals of daily White House business. As far as the rest of the Cabinet, McClellan paints Vice President Dick Cheney as the secretive, ominous presence that he’s been characterized as. Condi Rice is portrayed as desiring to please the President or reaffirm what she feels the President believes. McClellan, obviously, feels that Rove’s presence is a hindrance to effective governance but yet paints a picture of a likable figure. It’s always quite refreshing to hear real accounts of people that you for the most part are always objects of analysis and scrutiny. McClellan succeeds in bringing the White House in the early-mid 2000’s alive.

On balance, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception is not only an enjoyable read but also provides insight into how and why some of Bush’s most crucial decisions were packaged to American citizens and the world. McClellan’s position did not allow him to be a factor in making policy but he was integral in selling the policy and defending it. The author does come off as self pitying at times, and even more, he paints himself as a noble among barbarians which is hard for one to believe. McClellan writes the book perhaps out of absolution, if only for himself, yet it’s apparent he was a willing part of the permanent campaign that he now despises. One has to wonder “What Happened” to Scott McClellan to change his perspective?

Book Review: The Right Man by David Frum

It’s always fascinating to look at history and events by examining what was being said at the time.  So often, most of the historical accounts and research is written with hindsight but without balancing out what the general thoughts, regardless of how varied they may be, at the moment were.  My decision, in 2010, to read David Frum’s 2003 book, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W.Bush came down to two reasons.  One, it was a selling for a quarter in a library bargain bin.  Two, it may provide stimulating and valuable insight on the Bush presidency at that time, without the burden of the 2002-on current zeitgeist on the Bush Presidency.

David Frum was hired by the Bush Administration as an Economic Speechwriter and the book encompasses his time from early 2001 until he left in February 2002.  The title of the book not so subtly declares how Frum feels about Bush as a leader.  Though he’s, at times, mildly critical it’s rarely about anything substantive.  In fact, Frum may be most critical about some of Bush’s speeches which Frum himself, as a speechwriter, is directly or indirectly responsible for.  In sum, Frum feels that the Bush Presidency was on a meandering path nowhere until 9/11 and then Bush became the Right Man for the job as a wartime President.  Frum never really critically challenges the Administration on what we now today realize were some gross misjudgments or outright lies.  Granted that this was before the actual decision to invade Iraq, yet Frum (the main writer behind the “Axis of Evil” speech) assumes that there is already justification to invade Iraq and through his writing, he obviously perceived it as inevitable.  That line of thought seems to have run deep in the Neo-Con cabal, and international law was just an afterthought.

The redeeming aspects of the book are the inside looks at working in the White House and, more specifically, working in the White House during and after 9/11.  Frum really gives the reader a good sense regarding the two poles of the administration between with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes.  He’s also adamant that there is no sinister Dick Cheney who pulls the strings, in fact, Frum paints a picture of George W. Bush as a very resolute man and not swayed once a decision has been made.  Along those lines, Frum portrays Bush as one who makes bold decisions from a moral plane and is willing to stick with them regardless of political consequences.  Depending on your worldview, that can be either seen as a redeeming quality of a great leader or a fault of a reckless cowboy.

Frum’s insight can be taken for what it is, the thoughts of a loyal aide who strongly believes in his former boss, at least in 2002.  Has Frum changed his perspective on Bush?  I don’t know but I would say that it would have to been altered in some way in the last 7 years.  The value of the book isn’t necessarily what Frum thinks about Bush circa 2002, but moreso, what did people like Frum think in 2002.  It’s a good overview of how the neo-con perspective was prior to Iraq.  Also, Frum does do a good job at giving some insight on how the White House worked, but he was obviously not a part of any inner circle so nothing is overwhelmingly revelatory.  This is part of a series of books I plan on reading about recent American Politics in an attempt to cobble several different perspectives together.  The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W.Bush, though a .25 cent bargain bin book and outdated by most standards, still has a voice that is worth acknowledging today.

Book Review: The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s most recent work. The Professor of Philosophy takes on Honor and it’s role in history and more specifically, moral revolutions.

Appiah takes great care in explaining that honor is a key to living well and a fundamental human need with its close ties to respect, having honor means being entitled to respect. We desire and crave it from others and ourselves. Honor is then parsed into two different types: appraisal respect/esteem and recognition respect. Esteem is the honor you gain by being judged by a standard, Appiah uses Rafael Nadal as an example. Nadal earns respect by being excellent according to tennis standards. Recognition respect is honor you haven’t earned but are entitled to by being part of a group. An example could be a policeman on duty, you respect him as part of part of the police force not because of his actions. It’s important to note that Honor and Morality are neither synonymous nor always in agreement. In fact, the thrust of the book is to show how they are often in opposition and that by changing the Honor standards Moral Revolutions can occur with relatively stunning quickness.

Rather than keeping the whole book on a theoretical philosophical plane, Appiah uses three case studies to show the role honor played in an immoral tradition and the role it played in revolting against it. He uses the example of duels, the practice of footbinding in China, and the example of Britain’s Atlantic slave trade. In each case, honor was applied differently and each case provides an opportunity for Appiah to expand on his thoughts about Honor.

In the case of the dueling, there were already moral arguments against it and it was against the law. So neither law nor calls to morality were effective in ending dueling, this is an important point to note. What brought down the practice of dueling was the fact that it became contemptous. Dueling used to be between “gentlemen”, the aristocratic class who had created their own honor code which had set them apart. The fact that they could get away with murder because of their status propelled the practice. However, along with the Industrial revolution a baser class rose up and started dueling as well. When it no longer was just in the realm of gentlemen, it became a mocked, laughable act. The practice could no longer hide in a small aristocratic group, it became exposed in public as stupid. This was the least interesting case study and the one that seemed to be a bit of a stretch.

The practice of footbinding in China was totally foreign to me. It’s quite amazing that for the last 1000 years or so, the Chinese used to break the bones of the feet of young girls and scrunch their foot with bindings. This was looked upon as sexy to Chinese men and a sign of a well born woman. Perhaps some day we will be mocked for breast implants. In any case, in the late 19th century China was in turmoil. After centuries of relative global isolation, they were being forced to interact with other nations. The literate magistrates of China recognized this and also recognized that the practice of footbinding appeared immoral and barbarous to the Europeans, Japanese, and Americans. In order to counter the supposed honor that one gained by binding the feet of a girl, they instead appealed to a different honor. The collective honor of the nation. China wanted to be respected amongst their global peers, not mocked. When the upper, literate class saw the shame that the practice brought upon their country they ceased and when the upper class stopped footbinding it cascaded down throughout all classes.

The Atlantic Slave Trade example brings up another important point of honor and respect. The respect we all are entitled to as a human being. The slaves were not being treated with “dignity”, or the right to recognition respect. When the working class of England realized that they shared, with the slaves, a lack of respect for their labor they sought to elevate the slaves and themselves. It was a symbiotic achievement.

Appiah then addresses the “Honor Killings” going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This chapter should be read regardless of if you read the whole book. It’s really amazing that this goes on today, in this day and age. The barbarous acts and attitudes towards women is without a doubt immoral but protected behind these archaic notions of honor. It will only change when the idea of honor changes in those societies. No amount of laws, moral arguments, religious arguments (these practices are in direct conflict with Islam, yet they still exist), or outside pressure will cease the honor killings.

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen gives the reader a lot to chew on and it’s easy to start applying these ideas to how you approach not only the broad world, but also your daily life and your own views on Honor. I think it’s a great example of a book that brings Philosophy out of the realms of strictly academics and applies it to history and current issues. Obviously I left out a lot of the more intricate philosophical arguments and details but Appiah does a good job at parsing his ideas out. My only complaint might be his style of writing which seems very meandering at times, like a slowly rocking boat with his lulling qualifying phrases. This is not a knock on the merit of his word but instead just a desire for more conciseness, at least at the end of the chapters.

Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

I was extremely happy to finish this, it was a major letdown for as acclaimed as it was and for having won a Pulitzer Prize.  Diamond’s whole book could have been boiled down to about 20 pages and not have lost any real merit because his theories are so broad sweeping anyway.  Essentially he answers the question of why over the course of human existence did the “Eurasians” come to dominate the globe and not another civilization?  Answer:  Geographic Determinism.  In other words it was inevitable that the civilizations rising out of the Fertile Crescent and expanding on an East-West axis would progress beyond other human groups due to the lack of as many geographic constraints on Food Production.  Diamond takes great effort to refute any racial determinism, which is great if he were presenting this in 1897 instead of 1997 however I don’t think that argument is being proffered much anymore.  As a non-academic, I can appreciate where he’s coming from with his theories and they seem to hold a lot of weight, however, it’s easy to sense where his arguments may be way too broad and therefore weak to an academic in his field.  The book is quite boring and trudging as well, I mean reading about which grains and cereals are easy to domesticate and how they spread drags on for several chapters.

Book Review: Game Change by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

This was a slight let down because I thought it would be more revelatory.  If you followed the campaigns relatively closely, like we all did, then most of this was not mind blowing.  It does give a little behind the scenes perspective which reveals the true personalities of the candidates and their staff.  The Obama/Hillary race is about 2/3rds of the book and both are portrayed well but Obama especially.  Bill Clinton, however, is looked upon as a bumblefuck by both his wife’s campaign and Obama’s campaign, sort of a necessary evil.  The Palin stuff is interesting but I was really hoping there would be more because to this day it still blows my mind.  The most interesting and salacious bits of the book are easily the John Edwards Train Wreck.  The portrayal of his wife, his affair with Rielle Hunter, and his delusional egoism were definitely the high points.  It’s a quick read so if you’re interested go for it but don’t expect anything special.

Book Review: The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

The subtitle to Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine is “Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court”. Having read The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court by Bob Woodward and Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court by Edward Lazarus, I was excited about Toobin documenting the court in more recent times but skeptical of any secret world that the title purported. Toobin’s book mainly encompasses the Rehnquist Court from the late 1980’s and the beginning of the Robert’s court up to around 2008. The period of time from Breyer’s nomination in 1994 to the O’Connor and Rehnquist departures in 2005 was the longest that 9 Justices served together. Toobin explores throughout the book each of the Justices’ nominations, backgrounds, character, personality, legal philosophy and political philosophy. As the book progresses more emphasis than ever is put on political ideology.

Toobin profiles all 9 of the Justices but focuses much more heavily on Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy for the fact that they are the two whose vote swung so many decisions. Clarence Thomas is portrayed as a gregarious and outgoing fellow but bitter and pushing a legal and political philosophy that is so out of touch to be compared to the 19th Century court. As he spends more time on the bench the impression given by Toobin is that he is mailing it in, in fact in one year he never asked one question throughout all the oral arguments. Scalia, Ginsburg, and Stevens are portrayed as highly intelligent but married to one side or the other. Rehnquist is portrayed as a keen administrator who as his career progressed became less involved in affecting the law as he was in making sure it was efficiently processed. Breyer and Souter had more light shown in their direction. Souter was notable because of the distinctly odd or ascetic lifestyle he lives, he still only uses a fountain pen for example. Breyer, a pragmatist and worldly justice, developed a great relationship with O’Connor and also influenced much of how the Court decided in those 11 years.

Perhaps the biggest focus on an individual case in this book was the monumental Bush v. Gore. Toobin describes the history briefly and illustrates the hubris of the Justices and their political motivations. It was, perhaps, one of the Supreme Court’s worst moments in history along with cases like Dred Scott. However, much of the book is not about specific case law as opposed to the generalities of the Justice’s political and legal thinking. That makes the book much more of a narrative and perhaps more entertaining than other Supreme Court tomes. Toobin does a wonderful job at showing just how fragile the law really is because it exists as the whims of 9 Justices and when they change one can be sure that the law will shift too. The old myth of the Justices only being arbiters of the law not creators of the law is shattered by Toobin, especially when he exemplifies how quickly the Robert’s Court, which made a dramatic lurch to the right, was apt to turn over major precedents.

Toobin’s look into the modern Supreme Court was enlightening but also disheartening as one ponders the thought of a Supreme Court filled with extremists and the damage they may cause. Unlike the rest of our nation’s government, the Supreme Court is not accountable to anyone but themselves. Justices like O’Connor were always quick to measure how the Public felt at large with her rulings and that is one reason she was so effective. If anything, in The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court Toobin illustrates the best and the worst of the Supreme Court system, but like most systems it is usually only as good as the people that occupy it.

Book Review: Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed

Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed may very well be the best book I have or will read this year. That seemed to be the reaction of most critics since the book’s publication last year. The book debuted during the midst of the 2008 Financial tsunami that threatened to be the next Great Depression, so the publication could not have been more timely and helpful to its sales. Ahamed did not however, spit out a book to make the presses during the financial crisis. Lords of Finance is meticulously researched and was 10 years in the making. At 500+ pages long, its only real shortcoming is that it wasn’t longer and more detailed which I was begging for at its completion.

Lords of Finance chronicles the four men in charge of the four most powerful Central Banks after WWI. Benjamin Strong of the US, Montagu Norman of England, Hjalmar Schacht of Germany, and Emile Moureau are the focus of the book as the main premise is that these men helped lead the world into the Great Depression. Each of the bankers has a distinct, powerful personality ranging from Schacht’s forcefulness to Norman’s sheer peculiarity. Though we follow the banker’s decisions and stories closely, do not mistake Lords of Finance for a set of biographies. In fact the book is part biography, history, and political and economic treatise.

Ahamed spends a great deal of time discussing the gold standard and the bankers antiquated belief and adherence to the gold standard. We are also introduced to John Maynard Keynes who plays a large role throughout the book and is the father of Keynesian economics. Keynes is portrayed as the antithesis to the Central Bankers and was unfortunately not in a position to stop what he could see was happening all around. One of the most intriguing realizations for the reader is how little that the men who were running the global finances actually knew about Central Banking and economics in general. That argument could possibly still be made today but we have definitely progressed in our knowledge.

World War I and the lead up to World War II are also focal points in the book. The interrelation between the three watershed events (WWI, The Depression, and WWII) is the most fascinating aspect about Lords of Finance and about history in general. Reparations from WWI crippled Germany for years and led to hyper-inflation and a bitter resentment from the German people. Along with reparations, War Debts (mostly owed by France and England to the US) were also crippling to global economy as every country demanded their pound of flesh and refused to forgive either reparations or debts.

Ahamed writes in a very clear enlightening style, though his chapters sometimes seem to jump back and forth randomly. He also touches on a great deal of subjects but doesn’t necessarily expound as much as one may wish. With the immensity of the subject and time period it would be impossible to address every detail in depth. The book actually gets one my biggest compliments because of the fact that it made me hungrier to read and research more on this time period and these events. Lords of Finance provides a great overview and an economics perspective to a fascinating time in history.

Review: The Case Against the Fed by Murray Rothbard

This review was orginally written by me on January 2nd, 2009 for another website.  I’ve decided to repost it since the next review will deal heavily with the Federal Reserve and Banking as I plan to finish and review Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (Hardcover) shortly.

This is another enlightening read considering the times we are in. Prior to reading The Case Against the Fed, I was convinced that the economic crisis we are currently in was caused by the actions of the Fed and its “solution”, TARP, was going to benefit only the bankers. After reading this book, my thoughts are cemented.

Rothbard belongs the Austrian School of Economics, proponents of the free market who despise central banking. Rothbard makes a compelling case and in a very readable, laymen way. Rothbard explains the ideas behind central banking and how they create inflation, though purporting to control inflation. Beyond explaining the Federal Reserve, Rothbard shows how it was implemented in the US and the drivers behind it. It’s incredible to believe how much power JP Morgan and Rockefeller had in the early 1900’s.

Rothbard describes an almost ominous and conspiratorial implementation of the Federal Reserve. Even if I believed this to be true, which I may, what I find lacking was an analysis or description of how they justified the needs or benefits of a central banking system. Furthermore, I would like Rothbard to counter more ideas from proponents of central banking. Not necessarily from bankers but from economists.

I look forward to reading more of Rothbard’s work. I can’t say yet I’m a follower of his ideas but I find many compelling, enough to want me to read more.

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.