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13 Things That Don't Make Sense

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Spanning disciplines from biology to cosmology, chemistry to psychology to physics, Michael Brooks thrillingly captures the excitement of scientific discovery.Science’s best-kept secret is this: even today, thereare experimental results that the most brilliant scientists cannot explain. In the past, similar “anomalies” have revolutionized our world. If history is any precedent, we should look to today’s inexplicable results to forecast the future of science. Michael Brooks heads to the scientific frontier to confront thirteen modern-day anomalies and what they might reveal about tomorrow’s breakthroughs.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

224 pages, ebook

First published August 11, 2009

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About the author

Michael Brooks

25 books73 followers
Michael Brooks, who holds a PhD in quantum physics, is an author, journalist, and broadcaster. A consultant at New Scientist, he also writes regularly for New Statesman. Brooks is the author of At The Edge of Uncertainty, The Secret Anarchy of Science, and the bestselling non-fiction title 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer, THE, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and many magazines. He has lectured at, amongst others, NYU, the American Museum of Natural History, and the University of Cambridge.

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Profile Image for Trevor.
1,293 reviews21.7k followers
October 19, 2008
Thirteen things that don’t make sense

I worried about starting this book – worried much more than I ought to have worried – but worried nonetheless. I mean, things could only be bad. Here was a book that was going to tell me about thirteen things that required a ‘paradigm shift’ in science. It was the number 13 that bothered me more than anything else. The world is full of morons and one of the surest ways of spotting such a moron is via numerology. Crystals are also good, well, as is homeopathy. There will be more on homeopathy later.

So, I started this one through gritted teeth. And then he started off by discussing good old Thomas Kuhn – one of my least favourite philosophers. I was caught on the horns of a dilemma, either this guy was going to be some fruit-cake with a pocket full of god, or crystals, or vials for aromatherapy or he was going to be an irrationalist of the modern philosophy of science types (see Popper or Kuhn or their monster child Feyerabend) who see all science as devoid of objective reality and awaiting a great and new story-teller (such as a Newton, Einstein or Copernicus) to provide us with the next great paradigm in the endless sequence of shifts in the partial truths that scientific theories inevitably turn out to be.

But this book was nothing like this – and I can only recommend it whole-heartedly. Okay, so he does go on a bit about Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and is quite uncritical of the whole notion of paradigm shifts – but I guess it would be asking too much for him not to do this. Anyway, it is hard to argue that this idea does not fit nicely with his theme.

Taken at the biggest picture level Kuhn’s idea is that we tend to create a ‘scientific orthodoxy’ that determines what is worth investigating and what is beyond the bounds of legitimate scientific research. Science builds up a system of interconnecting theories and ideas and these become the landscape of the accepted. Within that landscape individual scientists in the community of science look at ways in which they can expand our knowledge of that landscape – what they don’t do and what there are real disincentives for attempting (according to Kuhn) is to restructure the landscape to such an extent that we have mountains where we once had planes.

However, facts are stubborn things and now and again our investigations throw up something that simply doesn’t fit with accepted theories. In such cases the scientific community has one of three choices – ignore the fact (always a favourite), get it to fit into the established paradigm (tweak it) or jettison our established theories and start again (always the last choice – and a bloody good thing too!).

Well, not that we ever actually do the last one, not anymore. Whatever Einstein did to Newton it wasn’t starting over again. Which is my major criticism of Kuhn, but enough of that already.

What are we to do if stuff we observe in the real world just doesn’t fit with our theories of how the real world ought to operate? I’m not talking about supposed problems with our theories – you know, how they don’t account for auras or Feng Shui – but stuff real scientists have found and can’t explain.

For a long time I’ve been an on again / off again reader of New Scientist. The problem is that it comes out too frequently for me to read anything other that it – so I have stopped subscribing to it. I had exactly the same problem when learning to speak Italian – learning Italian was all I could do and that was simply asking too much. Over the years I’ve read innumerable articles on all manner of interesting things. But one of the articles that I read years ago that fascinated me and that I never heard about again is discussed in this book – the problem with the Pioneer missions. In the 1970s we sent the only man made objects ever out of the solar system. You remember, there was that gold disk with music and photographs of people and the man and the woman waving – oh, and the fact the woman didn’t have any indication that she had genitalia was to protect the project from being cancelled by the incredibly prudish I read somewhere. But I digress, for a bit of a change...

When they sent these probes they decided that they might as well try to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity at the same time. And why not, indeed?

The problem was (and is) that the damn things aren’t where they are supposed to be according to either Newton or general relativity. People have done everything to try to explain the discrepancy – thinking that there was something that had gone wrong on the probes themselves or such – but all of the theories have turned up nothing that would explain the problem. Now, when I read about this years ago in New Scientist I was quite excited by it. Not because it might explain why the Pioneer probes were slightly off course, but because it might explain that other slight inconvenience – where someone has hidden 90-odd percent of the universe. If ever we needed a paradigm shift it is in cosmology. As Oscar Wilde might have said (if given the chance) losing over 90% of the universe just looks like carelessness.

But what if gravity does not work as we think it does over interstellar distances? Might that help to explain where most of the universe has gotten to while we weren’t looking? I don’t know enough about science to say. I generally don’t buy every edition of New Scientist, not even most, but one thing that will get me to buy a copy is if there is a cover story about dark matter, dark energy or gravity. Something is seriously wrong and I’m looking forward to seeing what better minds than mine come up with to help explain it.

And that is what this book is about. There are a great many things in science that simply do not make any sense at all and they are calling out for someone to make sense of them. Not by ‘turning to God’ or holding crystals – but by coming up with a new way to explain the world. I for one am looking forward to learning how these problems described in this book are resolved.

I’ve only found out after reading this book that the author writes for New Scientist and based this book on an article he wrote in New Scientist called 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense. These really are some of the issues that any thinking human ought to be keeping an eye on. These are the issues that every thinking human being ought to know actually are issues. A while ago I started reading a book called I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist and stopped because, well, the people who wrote that book just didn’t know enough about science or atheism to make any competent assessment of what they were talking about. It was a book written to counter Richard Dawkins by people who hadn’t bothered to read Richard Dawkins. Those issues are done and dusted – these thirteen are the real issues facing modern humanity, not whether some boy God dressed in blue skin is the Lord of the Dance, or however that fairytale goes again.

Brooks does warn that most people won’t be very happy with him including Homeopathy as one of the things that don’t make sense. And he is right – I’m not happy with him including Homeopathy. But then, the book wasn’t written to make anyone particularly happy and I’m prepared to admit that it is possible that the final death blow is yet to be delivered to this most bizarre of alternative medicines. That said, if Homeopathy is proven to work it will be the one that will most shift our paradigms – and then some.

The New Scientist article this book was based on can be found here:


Profile Image for Obied Alahmed.
241 reviews143 followers
October 30, 2017
أولا - لمن ليس لديه شغف وعشق لهذا النوع من الكتب سيشعره بالتعب و الارهاق لكثافة وكثرة التفاصيل العلمية فهذا الكتاب علمي تفصيلي تاريخي بحت فلا يحاول غير المهتم او الذي لديه اهتمامات عامة ان يقرأه لانه سيمل من زخم التفاصيل

ثانيا - انصح بشدة لمن ينوي قراءة الكتاب أن يقرا قبله كتاب " موجز تاريخ كل شيء تقريبًا
" للكاتب بيل برايسون ....
حيث انه مهم وأجد الكتابين يكملان بعضهما وبهما يكتسب الشخص وفرة أكثر في المعلومات

ثالثا - تقيبم الكتاب من وجهة نظري انه رائع وزاخر بالمعلومات العلمية و يركز على الشاذ من الظواهر العلمية فلكيا و فيزيائيا و بيولوجيا ...
ومنهج الكتاب قريب على طريقة بيل برايسون من حيث غزارة المعلومات وزخم التفاصيل

رابعا - أعجب ما وجدته في هذا النوع من الكتب هو المعلومة التالية ( 96 % ) من الكون مجهول بالنسبة للعلم فسبحان القائل ( وما أوتيتم من العلم إلا قليلا )

خمس نجمات و وبراحة تامة
Profile Image for Mike (the Paladin).
3,145 reviews1,814 followers
December 14, 2013
Fairly interesting account of certain anomalies in science. Dark matter, Cold Fusion and some others. A lot of what comes out here is the fact that the scientific community is as human as the rest of us. So often if findings fly in the face of "established scientific fact" the person making the finding or following up on the research is completely ruined.

As in a researcher with a doctorate ending his days as a clerk in a stockroom or a Nobel laureate forced into retirement.

I got this out of curiosity and was drawn in quickly. The statement that the statement which leads to or presage more scientific discoveries is not "Eureka" but "that's funny".

The book is very readable and interesting. I suspect it will seem very elementary to any among the readers who are actually functioning researchers (Sheldon Cooper would surly make fun of it). While it does draw the reader in at times it draws it's stories out a bit much and it is possible that by the time you move from one subject to the next you'll be more than ready to do so (I was). Still enjoyable and if this is something that interests you it's a good book for the intelligent layman.
Profile Image for Mazola1.
253 reviews12 followers
September 8, 2008
In 13 Things That Don't Make Sense, Michael Brooks takes a brief look at 13 thorny problems which science has no good solution to. The problems are explained in simple terms, and include such things as death, sex, life, dark matter, and the placebo effect. What Brooks shows is that despite the best efforts of generations of scientists, and all the marvels of modern technology, we are far from understanding even such basic things as what the universe is made of and what it means to be alive.

A related, and far more interesting, topic which runs through the book is the way scientists do science. Although we tend to think of science as fact or evidence based, in fact, scientists too have their preconceived ideas and prejudices to which they cling even in the face of contrary evidence. And these can be surprisingly hard to change.

Brooks refers to Kuhn's idea that science changes by paradigm shifts. And he shows why often the paradigm doesn't shift until most of the adherents of the old one die off. In other words, scientists, too, suffer from the herd mentality. As proof, he cites the fact that Einstein couldn't get a job teaching physics even after publishing papers which radically altered the structure of physics. Biologists hesitate to report findings that many species of animals engage in homosexual behavior, fearing the consequences. Because of the career demolishing impact of the first report of cold fusion, most researchers now won't get anywhere near cold fusion, despite the fact that there is probably something there worth looking into. And the list goes on and on.

So add to the 13 things in Brooks' book the curious timidity of many scientists to do research into or to report facts in areas which seem outlandish or contrary to conventional wisdom.
Profile Image for Buck.
158 reviews881 followers
November 6, 2008
Consistently mind-blowing - until about the halfway point, where the focus shifts from the cosmic to the prosaic. Now granted, I'm a scientific ignoramus, but I can't be alone in feeling that cosmology is just way sexier than biology, so to go from heady speculations about a multiplicity of universes to - of all sublunary things - the wonders of homeopathy -- well, it kind of killed my buzz.

Highly recommended, in any case, especially for those who, like me, are impatient with the nuts and bolts of science but take a dilletantish interest in the big questions.

Oh - and here's a fun little tidbit I picked up from Brooks. It turns out that when Einstein made his famous remark about God's not playing dice with the universe, Niels Bohr was there to deliver a brilliant slapdown. 'Einstein,' he said, 'Stop telling God what to do.' How did I not know this? Over the years, I could have confounded a lot of physics geeks (and Jesus freaks) with that one.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,536 followers
July 17, 2011
I realized, before starting this book, that some of the topics might be "old hat". I've read about the dark matter/dark energy mystery in a number of books. But I wasn't ready for the other fascinating mysteries, that truly surprised me. For example, I thought that the placebo effect was well understood. But evidently not. For example, the common drug Valium (dizaepam) has a strong effect; but only if the person taking it understands what the effect should be. Tests have shown that the drug is no more effective than a placebo, when subjects are not told that it should reduce their anxiety levels. The FDA and the entire pharmaceutical industry relies on double-blind tests against placebos, but the author wonders if this may be a relatively meaningless test for some types of medicines.

Other questions also surprised me. Why do organisms die? Still unknown. Is there life on Mars? The experts have waffled on this question, as the equipment/sensors on board the Viking spacecraft have been shown to be orders of magnitude less sensitive than originally thought. Why has sexual reproduction evolved through natural selection? Also not understood. Is there such a thing as free will? Recent experiments have shown that our actions are not as self-induced as one might think. I thought that cold fusion was dead; but apparently not--research has been stymied by the career-breaking consequences that it has had on reputable scientists.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
January 11, 2016
Some of these things are sort of covered in Brooks’ other book, At the Edge of Uncertainty, while others weren’t. There’s a bunch of interesting stuff about extraterrestrial intelligence and the experiments looking for microbial life on Mars, for instance. As with the other book, Brooks gives clear explanations. In fact, reading both books illuminated more about the topics that were in both. Each topic leads to the next in a very logical way, too.

The topic selections are all interesting: life on Mars, the ‘wow’ signal, discrepancies about universal constants… It may not all be of interest to every reader, but it’s a good selection of scientific mysteries and frontiers. It explores them quite well, without going into too much detail.

Very much a pop science book, suitable for readers of New Scientist and similar publications. Which isn’t surprising, since he was an editor for that magazine!

Originally posted here.
Profile Image for Marcus.
311 reviews299 followers
September 14, 2008
I really enjoyed this book. In a world where most geographical frontiers have already been explored it's inspiring to read about the wild west of science where our knowledge is small and great discoveries are still to be made.

The author did a good job of interweaving the 13 things so the book felt like a single work and not 13 distinct essays. There are interesting humans elements to the book. It's fascinating how the careers of so many scientists were affected by their 'discoveries.' The final chapter on homeopathy, the one I almost skipped because the topic seemed like an open-and-shut case, surprisingly turned out to be the most interesting. I also really enjoyed the discussion on dark matter and the way that single topic was interwoven throughout the book.
Profile Image for Siv30.
2,337 reviews122 followers
January 16, 2016
"במדע, העובדה שאינכם מסוגלים להתקדם, יכולה להיות אות לכך שאתם עומדים לזנק זינוק גדול קדימה. הדברים שאינם מתיישבים עם ההיגיון הם, באופנים מסוימים, הדברים היחידים
החשובים באמת."

הספר מציג לקורא 13 אנומליות, תעלומות מדעיות , בלתי פתורות למרות השנים והמאמץ שהושקעו בפתרונן. בשפה בהירה ומשעשעת מתאר המחבר את הניסיונות, את הצמתים המרכזיים, את ההישגים ואת הכשלונות בכל תחום. את ההשלכות האופרטיביות של הוכחת האנומליה או אי הוכחתה.

הפרק הראשון עוסק בחומר האפל וחוסר יכולתם של המדענים להוכיח אותו. משעשע כי למעשה המדענים מסוגלים להסביר רק 4 אחוזים מהיקום והיתר הוא בגדר נעלם.

"אור הכוכבים שנקלט בראשית המאה ה־20 בטלסקופ קלארק במצפה לוֹוֶל הסמוך לפלגסטף היה ראשיתה של שרשרת תצפיות שהובילו לאחת התגליות המפתיעות במדע: רובו הגדול של היקום חסר."

הפרק השני, עוסק בשתי גשושיות שמאיימות על חוקי הכבידה הידועים כבר 400 שנים.

הפרק השלישי עוסק בקבועים המשמשים כהנחות בחישובים פיזיקליים.

הפרק הרביעי עוסק בשאלת המיזוג הקר ובאפשרות להפיק אנרגיה בתהליכים של מיזוג אטומי שלא מעורבים בו תהליכים של פיצוץ גרעיני.

הפרק החמישי עוסק באנומליה של החיים. והפרק השישי עוסק באפשרות למצוא חיים תבוניים בגלקסיה. כך גם הפרק השביעי שעוסק במיזם לחיפוש חיים תבוניים מחוץ לכדור הארץ.

הפרק השמיני עוסק בשאלת החיים מזווית של מוצאם ובנגיפים.

והפרק התשיעי עוסק באנומליה של המוות. הפרק העשירי עוסק ברבייה מינית ורבייה אל מינית ובקשר להזדקנות ומוות. פרק מרתק ומעניין .

"החידה היא מדוע הרבייה המינית היא שניצחה? עַרבו יצור נוסף בתהליך הרבייה שלכם ורק חצי ממטען הגנים שלכם יועבר הלאה. ולרבייה המינית יש עוד חיסרון: אם אוכלוסייה מינית ואוכלוסייה אל־מינית חיות זו לצד זו, כל אחד ממבני האוכלוסייה האל־מינית מביא צאצאים לעולם לעומת חצי בלבד מקרב בני האוכלוסייה המינית. מסתבר שהמין הוא מתכון להכחדה. האל־מיניים ישתלטו עד מהרה על הסביבה. המין כרוך אפוא במה שמיינרד סמית כינה "מחיר כפול". מדוע ירצה מישהו לאמץ רבייה שהקצב והיעילות הגנטית שלה הן חצי מזו של יריבתה?

וזו הגנטיקה בלבד. עוד לא הזכרנו את המאמצים שיש להשקיע בהשגת בן זוג או בת זוג, את חוסר היעילות המהותי שבערבוב הפיזי של ביציות וזרעונים, ואת בעיית הפגיעוּת מטורפים בעת פעולת הרבייה המינית. וישנו גם הסיכוי שצירופי הגנים המשובחים, אלה שהאבולוציה בחרה בתהליך הברירה, יתפרקו בתהליך השחלוף ולא יעברו יחד אל הצאצאים. כמעט מכל זווית שיתבונן בה התיאורטיקן, הרבייה המינית היא אסון."

הפרק ה 11 עוסק ברצון חופשי ובשאלה האם באמת יש לנו רצון חופשי והפרק ה 12 עוסק בתופעת הפלאצבו. בפרק האחרון הספר עוסק בהומאופתיה.

למרות השפה הקלילה והמשעשעת יחסית מדובר לעיתים בספר לא פשוט לקריאה, אבל הוא בהחלט שווה את המאמץ. ניתן לראות בו מעיין סיכום, דברים עד כאן.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
614 reviews762 followers
November 23, 2011
14th thing that doesn't make sense: Covers on public toilet seats. I mean no-one ever puts it down, and if they do, do you want to touch a public toilet seat cover to lift it up? I don't.

15th thing that doesn't make sense: Most people have two feet, thus two socks. Most people put two socks into the wash, there surely can't be many who sniff their socks and decide that one of them could go another day. So what happens then? It is a complete mystery to me how the collection of single socks comes about, and indeed continues to grow. Are there single socks orbiting the Earth somewhere? Does the washing machine in the cellar eat them?

16th thing that doesn't make sense: my trying to read this book at the moment. I checked out some reviews here at GR and found that it goes from the cosmos to the human, so I started reading it backwards, going t'other way about, and virtually giving up when I got past sex and death. I'm sure that Mr Brooks is very competent at explaining physics stuff to science-challenged people like me, but I just couldn't summon the concentration when there is so much that I should be reading for school, for work, to justify my subscription to Die Zeit. It's all quite fascinating, but worryingly inconclusive. That is the message: there's still lots we don't know, but I for one certainly don't want to hear that there might actually be something in the quackery that is called homeopathy. I mean that friend of mine whose son had a stiff neck, and dashed off to the homeopath for 'globuli'. They were sold to her at some inflated price with the wonderfully cynical advice "If he doesn't feel better after five days, then come back" FIVE DAYS??? A stiff neck will go away by itself within three days, so these 'globuli' must have been SLOWING THE PROCESS DOWN!!! And here I read that there is a chance that the structure of water might be in some way significant. Ammunition for the quacks. Tsk tsk.
Profile Image for Bandit.
4,514 reviews455 followers
March 14, 2016
Behold the Socratic paradox. Socrates said I know that I know nothing. Well, allegedly he said that, at least according to Plato's account of Socrates life. But it does sum up how one can walk away feeling after reading this book. It's a feeling that I've long contended with the more I read and learn about sciences, particularly astronomy. Several classes and many books on the subject later and there is still so much supposition and guesswork and uncertainty. Virtually 96 percent of cosmos is comprised of dark matter and dark energy (of which everyone's pretty much in the dark about), what we know is infinitesimal, what we don't is daunting. And that's only one of the subjects. Brooks in this book highlights some of the things we don't know and/or that don't really makes sense. At least as of yet, until the paradigm shift enters into it. So it's a humbling kind of a reading experience, but it's interesting enough in a reader's digest sort of way, it provides some good basic information for those who are not familiar with the subjects and a nice refresher for those who are. It's fairly educational, concise and written in an easy to process manner. While personally I prefer nonfiction written with more personality and a humorous approach if possible, Brooks' MO is a more serious, personality free (until the epilogue) approach, but it still made for a pretty good read about our ineffable mysterious world. Sense shall be made.
Profile Image for Kalin.
Author 71 books264 followers
November 11, 2021
15 Oct 2014: Just finished editing the Bulgarian translation.

24 Oct 2014: This is a much-needed book, for both scientists and laymen.

Firstly, because it teaches humility: never again shall you say to yourselves, I know all of it; there is nothing left to discover.

Secondly, because it prods us to keep asking questions: What are we taking for granted? Is this bit of knowledge reached by consensus or established by conformity (or worse yet, complacence)? What other approaches are there to it? What facts do not fit the picture? How do we adjust our goggles?

(That last one reminds me of a saying I first saw in The Broken God by David Zindell: Beliefs are the eyelids of the mind.)

More ruminations to follow.

11 Nov 2021: The passage of time has carried away most ruminations I used to have. But you can still find some in my Bulgarian review.

(What do you mean, you can't read Bulgarian? What kind of parochial, uncivilized hick are you? ^..^)
Profile Image for Bob.
101 reviews11 followers
January 18, 2009
The further into the book I read the more I got into it as it progressed from the cosmological to the physical to the biological. Most intriguing to me were the looks at cold fusion, free will, the placebo effect, and homeopathy. With thirteen areas examined, including life, sex and death, there is probably something here for everyone. Everyone, except those who are unwilling to challenge their assumptions.
Profile Image for Peter.
32 reviews2 followers
October 8, 2008
Michael Brooks only really had about 11 interesting things that science has trouble explaining. "Homeopathy" and "Free Will" seemed kind of tacked on in order to reach 13. "11 things that don't make sense" being the far less catchy title.
Profile Image for Allison.
262 reviews41 followers
December 22, 2017
Such a cool read.

All of the chapters on astronomy caught my full attention -- from space probes to physics to dark matter to aliens -- it's all extremely COOL!

The chapter on Free Will was also pretty neat. Do we really have free will? Looks like we may not. What!? Cool!

The other chapters are interesting too -- Life, Death, Sex, Placebo Effect, Microbiology, others -- and I really can recommend this book to anyone who gets a massive kick out of science reading, like I do. Loved it. I wonder if an updated version of this book would change much...
472 reviews5 followers
November 2, 2012
This is, all in all, pretty weak. There are certainly some interesting things raised in the book - good summaries of some of the alternative theories raised to explain things like the prevalence of dark matter, and so on. At the same time, science has moved on a fair bit since the book was written. The Pioneer Anomaly, for example, has been explained, to the apparent satisfaction of scientists. The experiments supposedly debunking free will have, possibly, been shown to be deeply problematic and perhaps not saying what they were thought to have said. (Although, as a hard determinist and philosophy-hater, I don't think that the concept of free will is actually in any way meaningful, at least how it's usually expressed.)

Now, perhaps it's a bit unfair to criticise a book for stuff which has only come to light in the past few years. However, the fact that these things have gotten simple explanations - the roots of which have been around for a while - means it at least needs to be raised. I wouldn't be so churlish as to mark down the book for it, however.

The real problem, I think, is Brooks' willingness to accept odd fringe theories as having equal validity as established ones. Yes, Kuhn, renegade scientists, paradigm shifts, blah blah blah. It is quite obvious that the standard theories do not adequately explain the universe, at least in quite the way we want. But that doesn't mean that the fringe stuff is right. After all, Newtonian physics are still, as a basic approximation, valid for most things, even after the development of Einsteinian physics into the standard model.

And then there's the ludicrous stuff. Cold fusion gets a remarkably sympathetic treatment - we are led to believe that there's something important there, because the US military have invested money in it. Presumably we're meant to ignore their distance viewing experiments, and MKUltra, and whatever else. The military has lots of money, it can afford to throw cash at the fringes just in case that might be advantageous. The explanations for cold fusion which propose experimental errors or odd conditions (such that it might be a function of the palladium samples used, for example) are far more convincing, but they are, if not dismissed, certainly tainted by implication.

And then there's homeopathy. Seriously, by now surely we've realised that it's probably best explained by a combination of placebo, regression to the mean, a good bedside manner, and perhaps a few other things? I mean, it's not like every study ever hasn't confirmed this. But no, Brooks is talking about the structural memory of water and BLAH BLAH THIS IS STUPID.

Profile Image for Jigar Brahmbhatt.
296 reviews126 followers
January 23, 2014
The purpose of this book is to show, by 13 different examples, how science has a long way to go before it can assure us that "all is under control". Somehow, we are aware of this limitation. I am still unsure of the writer's stance. Is he in favor of science? He explains one set of difficulties scientists faced in a certain area of research, before moving on to another. There are interesting bits of information peppered in, which is all this book has to offer in my opinion, so that you can sound a little smarter if a related conversation sparks up among your friends.

This is not a science book with a vision to theorize or bring under an umbrella varied separated notions of reality. It has no such scientific goal as such. Neither it aims to illuminate with great clarity the complex theories of science for the laymen (the way books by Feynman or say Brain Greene are written). What I mean is, if you have read a great deal of pop-science, then you already know most of what is discussed here. Because this book is what its title suggests, and if that's what you look for, it will work for you. I particularly enjoyed the sections on Dark Matter and Free Will.
Profile Image for Book Shark.
743 reviews137 followers
April 25, 2017
13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time by Michael Brooks

“13 Things That Don’t Make Sense” is a provocative look at 13 scientific wide-ranging mysteries. Michael Brooks holds a PhD in Quantum Physics, editor and now consultant for New Scientist magazine, takes the reader on the wonderful journey of scientific mysteries. Since the publishing of this book a few of these mysteries have been resolved. This provocative 256-page book includes the following thirteen mysteries/chapters: 1. The Missing Universe, 2. The Pioneer Anomaly, 3. Varying Constants, 4. Cold Fusion, 5. Life, 6. Viking, 7. The Wow! Signal, 8. A Giant Virus, 9. Death, 10. Sex, 11. Free Will, 12. The Placebo Effect, and 13. Homeopathy.

1. A well-written, well-researched and entertaining book.
2. The writing is fair and even-handed almost too much so.
3. The fascinating topic of scientific mysteries in the capable hands of Dr. Brooks. “The future of science depends on identifying the things that don't make sense; our attempts to explain anomalies are exactly what drives science forward.”
4. Excellent format! Each chapter is about a specific scientific mystery and the author cleverly leads the end of the previous chapter into the next one.
5. Interesting facts spruced throughout the book. “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.”
6. Profound and practical practices in science. “They won't embrace the extraordinary until they rule out the ordinary.”
7. Provocative questions that drive the narrative. “Have the laws of physics remained the same for all time?”
8. An interesting look at cold fusion. “To get energy out of atoms, you either have to break up their cores—a process called nuclear fission—or join different atoms together by nuclear fusion.”
9. One of the deepest concepts, the concept of what constitutes life. “If creating life is "simply" a matter of putting the right chemicals together under the right conditions, there's still no consensus about what "right" actually is—for the chemicals or the conditions.”
10. It never hurts to quote some of the greatest thinkers, consider the late great Carl Sagan, “We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.”
11. Is there life on Mars? Find out about some of the attempts made. “One of the strongest arguments against life existing on Mars has always been the harshness of the environment: low temperatures, a wispy thin atmosphere, and the lack of liquid water all count against the development of living organisms.”
12. A look at Occam’s razor applied to aliens. “Occam's razor, and it says that, given a number of options, you should always go for the simplest, most straightforward one.”
13. A fascinating look at the Giant Virus. “There were the eukaryotes, the advanced organisms like animals and plants whose large and complex cells contained a nucleus that held inheritable information. The other branch was the simpler prokaryotes, such as bacteria, which have cells without a nucleus.”
14. A look at death. “Over the years, though, evidence mounted up supporting Kirkwood's idea that aging is due to a slow, steady buildup of defects in our cells and organs.”
15. Why the need for sex? “In general, the random genetic drift due to chance variation offers the best hope of explaining the apparent advantage of sex.”
16. Homosexuality in the animal kingdom. “Bruce Bagemihl's ten-year labor of love, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, reports that more than 450 species have been documented engaging in nonprocreative sexual behavior—including long-term pairings.”
17. A fascinating look at free will. “The lesson we learn from all this is that our minds do not exist separately from the physical material of our bodies. Though it is a scary and entirely unwelcome observation, we are brain-machines. We do not have what we think of as free will.” “In the illusion of free will, it seems we have been equipped with a neurological sleight of hand that, while contrarational, helps us deal with a complex social and physical environment.”
18. So what about the placebo effect? “The general conclusion here, it seems, is that the placebo effect is due to chemistry.”
19. Why is homeopathy still in existence? “According to the World Health Organization, it now forms an integral part of the national health-care systems of a huge swath of countries including Germany, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Mexico.” “An assessment of homeopathy using the criteria of known scientific phenomena says it simply cannot work; no wonder Sir John Forbes, the physician to Queen Victoria's household, called it "an outrage to human reason.”
20. Notes and sources provided.

1. Since the book was released in 2008 some of the anomalies have been resolved if not really not taken seriously. As an example, the Pioneer Anomaly was resolved; feel free to look it up.
2. I felt Dr. Brooks was a little too generous toward the wrong side of scientific consensus. As example, the discarded homeopathy.
3. Lack of charts and diagrams that would have complemented the sound narrative.
4. Though immersed to various degrees here and there I would have liked to see Dr. Brooks be clearer on what the scientific consensus is for each chapter.

In summary, I really liked this book. The book holds up quite well despite being released in 2008. My only gripe is not making perfectly clear what the scientific consensus is for each mystery, also, I would have discarded homeopathy as a scientific mystery. That said, a fun book to read, I recommend it!

Further suggestions: “At the Edge of Uncertainty” by the same author, “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll, “Now: The Physics of Time” by Richard A. Muller, “13:8: The Quest to Find the True Age of the Universe and the Theory of Everything” by John Gribbin, “Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments” by John Brockman” and “The Island of Knowledge” by Marcelo Gleiser.
Profile Image for Mohamed Osman.
564 reviews438 followers
February 7, 2017
هناك بعض الكتب تكمن متعتها وأهميتها فيما تثيره من أسئلة وأفكار، وهذا الكتاب واحد منها، لكن ما توفقت عنده حقا هو السيرة الذاتية للمترجمين، أستاذ دكتور أحمد عبد الله السماحي، وأستاذ دكتور فتح الله محمد إبراهيم الشيخ، الأول مواليد 1935 والثاني 1937
- بسم الله ما شاء الله ربنا يديهم الصحة ويطول في عمرهم-
رغم تقدمهم في العمر إلا أنهم مازالوا يسعون للترجمة وتقديم العلم ونشر المعرفة
بارك الله لهم
Profile Image for Kalin.
Author 71 books264 followers
November 11, 2021
Книга, която окончателно ще разклати доверието ви в науката.

... Шегувам се. :D Ако има нещо, в което ще почнете да се съмнявате, това са изказванията от типа „Науката вече е открила всичко освен някакви дреболии“. Да си призная, аз такива изказвания съм чувал само от: а) пълни невежи; б) преподаватели по физика на частиците в Принстън.

... Да, и аз бях O.o във втория случай. Но мисля, че на човека вече му мина. Даже не се наложи да му дам да чете предговора на тази книга. ;)

Загадките, които ме изумиха най-много мен, бяха:

- Глава 10: За какво в крайна сметка служи сексът? При условие че сума ти видове сума ти години се оправят и без него? (А някои видове стават ту полови, ту безполови за дълги периоди от време, в зависимост от околната среда.)

Същата глава съдържа и някои статистики за хомосексуалността при животните, от които може да проревете. Само моля да ревете по-шумно, за да ви чуя и да се посмеем. Заедно. :)

- Глава 9: Кое ни кара да умираме? Колко неподозирани проблеми – включително нелечими болести – се крият в онази част от гените ни, която почва да се проявява, щом минем стотака? Ще кажем ли „бай-бай“ на мечтите си за дълговечие?

Тук пък за първи път се сблъсках с понятието „биологично безсмъртие“.

В Човешката библиотека качих и няколко откъса, които подбирахме за евентуалната анотация на книгата:

154 reviews22 followers
February 6, 2015
A while ago, I read an article on Yahoo (Almost always a bad idea, but it happened nevertheless) about a scientist who claimed that we were an inch away from completely disproving god from a purely objective standpoint. I was unimpressed with the article, but I found the comments on the article to be great reading.

Namely because the article was universally reviled by atheists and agnostics as much as the religious. Though they did not believe in god, they claimed that our grasp of the universe was too narrow to objectively disprove any possibility of a god. (Note: It is not my intention to argue for or against the existence of a god. Please do not assume that it is) It speaks entire volumes that Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan consider (and in the case of Sagan, considered) themselves agnostics because they did not have any clinching proof. The same way that is speaks leagues of that scientist's arrogance in assuming that humanity had the definitive answer to one of the most persistent and controversial questions in human history when there are so many simpler mysteries that we have yet to solve.

The more educated one is, the more one realizes how little we actually know. To say that science has all the answers is a ludicrous claim and one that is, quite frankly, egotistic. But to claim that we will never understand the universe is just lazy. The human race may not ever completely understand everything in the universe, but even if we don't we'll die trying, damn it!

That is why this book, 13 Thing that Don't Make Sense, is a success and is something that I, personally, recommend: because it rides the fine line between humility at our knowledge of the universe and a love for the search of truth. Michael Brooks is not content to simply say that something is unexplained and foreign to our current knowledge. He does not simply stare into the darkness but probes it, offering light where he can and always maintaining an enthusiasm for the progression of science as opposed to stagnant appreciation for what we've already learned. A large part of the book is spent examining not just the anomalies themselves but also the people who uncovered and attempted to solve them, and revealed facts that I found shocking.

To me, the notion that scientists' reputation are ruined by some faulty experiment or association with a faulty idea is repulsive. That the scientific community, which is defined entirely by keeping an open (though skeptical) mind outright scorns the people who propose a new, reasonably logical, idea is a great injustice to science itself (scorning an idea is not the same thing. Scorning an idea that has been proven false is a key part of science. Scorning a legitimate scientist who proposed a faulty idea should not be). To err is human. We're allowed to make mistakes. Certainly a scientist who refuses to see his or her mistakes has no place in science, but making an error is not such a crime. Nor is testing a phenomenon that is generally not accepted to see if there is some kind of truth behind it.

13 Thing That Don't Make Sense is a book that epitomizes, at least to me, what it means to be a scientist. Always searching, always looking for new answers to problems that vex us. I recommend this to anyone who desires to go into science and anyone who wants to learn a little more about our universe in general.

P.S. I would appreciate feedback or corrections. Perhaps I made mistakes in the review. Perhaps some of my observations are incorrect. Either way, I'm trying to improve and it would be most helpful if any of you could help out.
Profile Image for Ken Cramer.
4 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2015
This book offered a fascinating glimpse into the world of science – with all of its successes and still all of its lingering mysteries. It is engaging, well-written, and leaves you above all else – thinking! The author however makes two mistakes (hence one less star): one grave, and the other… More grave.

Early in the book, the author explains how science is not about people, it's about nature. This is a likely conclusion from someone ingrained in physics, which is what the book is mostly about. The truth is that ALL of science – physics and psychology and geography and chemistry – is about people, because it's people -- with all of their bias and all of their backgrounds and experiences -- who formed those theories. It may be the case that across the universe, some alien world has also derived the idea that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared; but this isn't inevitable, not like discovering the property that 2+3 = 5. Science certainly does not have to study people, as physics doesn't; but science is about people, formed by people, tested by people, embraced by people – in short, WE are science.

But the second more grave error is more fundamental, by taking on a topic like free will that does not belong to the playground of science – this is philosophy's baby (grandfathered by religion), and the very idea that science will take this on and arrive at a conclusion to either accept or dismiss it is almost perverse; like practicing philosophy without a license! It truly is irrelevant that we can identify the brain mechanism that results in a finger twitch, and then conclude that we can circumvent your free will by activating that circuit. This is akin to our eye blink response, largely under the control of the autonomic nervous system which regularly regulates this for you – – but you can override the system, if you so CHOOSE. The author also may be confusing free will with thoughts or actions outside of awareness, as showing that the brain mechanisms are at work well before one's decision or intention toward a particular goal -- a related question, and perhaps more deserving of science's consideration.

BOTTOM LINE: read this book! Every consumer of science needs to realize we have come a long way and discovered some amazing things but we are far from done. However, as any good citizen we have to be a watchdog for science too, and not let the tail wag the dog...
Profile Image for Cassandra Kay Silva.
704 reviews280 followers
July 19, 2011
Any book that makes you ponder subjects that are seemingly inherently necessary (find a necessity for sexual reproduction or death) in a new light are going to be getting a thumbs up from me. I enjoy that, it is defiantly on my track of thinking. He took on a number of controversial topics and some of them (homeopathy for example) I don't think I will ever agree with given the current state of affairs but the author doesn't really ask you to agree with anything. He just says there are things that don't make sense and that is it. I am ok with that. He didn't seem to have any hidden agendas so the rest I can let pass as just interesting brain candy. I like thinking about different things and I am not the type to want to get so caught up in what "is" that I can't postulate other scenarios. I would never have homeopathy as a remedy on my list though nor would I recommend it for family or friends. That aside, (also the space probe thing was missing a few well known refutes). Anyway as long as their is no view pushing I can swallow it. It was still a fun read.
Profile Image for Tim Pendry.
985 reviews358 followers
January 10, 2010
Michael Brooks' survey of anomalies in contemporary science (2009 - UK Edition) might be regarded as a riposte to the 'end of science' thesis promoted by John Horgan in the mid-1990s. He makes a very good case although one has the suspicion that it is not that there is nothing else to know (which this book shows would be an absurd proposition) but perhaps that there are things that, because of the limitations of ourselves as human observers, we may never know.

Brooks adopts a systematic approach, taking us from anomalies in cosmology and physics through those in biology thence to evolutionary studies, neuroscience and medicine. However, it might be better here to separate out the one-off nagging anomalies, which may or may not be important. They may, of course, be of considerable importance IF proven but the broader sets of anomaly that frustrate scientists in their fields and indicate the potential (no more) for a major 'Kuhnian' paradigm shift, equivalent to that from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican astronomical system, are much more interesting. Such paradigm shifts can have significant associated cultural and political effects whereas the one-off anomalies have (largely) yet to be settled even as anomalies and imply rather than state major paradigm change.

Let's dispose quickly of these 'one-offs' - cold fusion, a navigational anomaly with the Pioneer spacecraft, disputed evidence for life on Mars and the freak alleged 'ET' signal received in 1977. These are fascinating but inconclusive. We are just going to have to admit that, as of today, we don't know whether cold fusion is possible, whether there is life on Mars or there are signalling aliens - not until more experiments can be mounted (at considerable public cost), possibly not even then.

The anomalies that imply paradigm shifts fall into two general areas - the nature of physics and of the universe and the nature of life and of matters affecting the relationship of mind and body. Perhaps the anomalies in the first zone (which relate to serious problems with the current consensus derived from Einstein's revision of Newtonian mechanics) might impact on the latter, but, at this point in history, such a leap would be so speculative as to be scientifically meaningless.

This book is mostly an easy read by a science journalist and consultant with considerable skill in explaining complex matters to the lay reader but, be warned, you will have to keep your wits about you. The general reader is going to have to take many claims for granted. Nevertheless, he feels reliable and the only 'wobbly' section is that on free will which we will come to in a moment.

The cosmology and physics anomalies are interesting but hard to make relevant to daily life. Our model of the universe works near to us but does not quite stack up the further that you move away from our immediate locality - issues of dark energy, dark matter, possible unknown gravitational forces and 'varying constants' suggest that some of the finest mathematical minds and some significant astronomical resources are going to be puzzling away at these issues for a good time to come.

What may be more relevant to us as persons on this planet is the complex of debates surrounding some very basic questions about human existence that have hitherto been left to philosophers but into which scientists are now intruding:

* what exactly is life? - to which there still appears to be no clear answer

* what is the role of the virus in evolution?

* why death? and why sexual rather than asexual repoduction?

* whether we have free will?

* and how the placebo effect and homeopathy work (or don't work) in medicine?

Brooks is effective in outlining, without (except in one case - free will) prejudice, the contrasting scientific theories and the inconclusive evidence in each case and he is not shy of making a subsidiary point of considerable importance about the flaws in scientists rather than in scientific method.

Scientists themselves are not objective machines but are human beings dependent on their own perception, expectations (both group and their own) and prejudices and (my opinion and not his) on measurement and analytical tools created by humans for humans. Even peer review can be unreliable, although the track record of scientific method in uncovering reliable facts remains, on balance, a good and effective one - if a lot more long-winded and cumbersome (and so expensive) than some lay people think.

Towards the end of the book, Brooks get a little less sure-footed. His account of the free will debate is not very convincing. In this area, many scientists are missing the point about free will and the human condition - or rather about the impossibility of measuring 'intent in the field'. One might concede that, for most of the time and in most conditions (especially under conditions of both stability or extreme emergency), the human mind is much more on auto-pilot than we like to think. Free will is possibly meaningless insofar as actions undertaken on auto-pilot involve a suspension of will and a body and mind losing themselves to cause and effect. It is this phenomenon that the scientists are clearly recording.

However, it is an unscientific and dangerous assumption to believe that a mind is not capable of setting the autopilot in the first place or of taking charge and making decisions, including positive decisions to reconform the mind to meet internal needs. Whether this proposition is true or false, it is also untestable for all the reasons noted by the philosopher Heidegger and others that each instant of consciousness is unique for each person - no instant can be held down and quantified without the fact of it being studied becoming part of the equation. Once observed in ways that meet the needs of scientific method, the 'will' may well disappear in the very decision to concede to the process. The answer to the riddle may be that the binary absolute of free will/determinism is absurd in itself - much of the time we are on autopilot but we have developed a consciousness capable of exerting will which most do not use very often but some do. The quality of free will is its uniqueness. Scientific method is not good with highly contingent or random effects and consciousness deals in complexity, the contingent and the randomness of external inputs.

The danger here (given that the case is not proven either way) is that experimental evidence will create, much as early Darwinism did, an inappropriate model of human behaviour that might meet the paradigm of what can be observed but cannot embrace what cannot be observed (a similar problem to that of cosmology). A sufficient to academic or commercial purpose 'working model' of the mind, based on autopilot behaviour, might become integrated into cultural and political policy and so into social and economic regulation - the path to a state- or community-directed 'soft' tyranny. History has a precedent - the use of evolutionary studies in Rassenpolitik in the first half of the last century.

We might see new attempts at social control which seem scientifically appropriate but which become massive perversions of the human condition as they are integrated into ideological presuppositions about human nature. However, before being too harsh on the neuro-scientists' potential political naivete, the research has one good side benefit - the destruction, even amongst scientists themselves, of any pretensions by humanity to ultra-rationalism or objectivity. The book could be seen as a running commentary on the lack of full rationalism in scientific treatment of anomalies but the point is a much bigger one and raised by Brooks himself - rational decision-making is an illusion. However, this does not tell the whole story.

Decision-making is not rational by any external standard (such as that of scientific positivism) but it is perfectly rational from the point of view of the organism itself (which fact irritates many rationalists). It is just that an outsider does not understand the base assumptions of the person making the decision - what appears irrational to an outsider is not to the insider. The issue then comes down to assessing why particular individuals have a 'will' to accept 'incorrect' assessments of their environment (from the point of socially constructed reality) that lead to (apparently) irrational responses and why this may have survival benefits (or not). For example, if you are a victim of external power but cannot change things for the better, a decision to take up magic or religion might be a rational act (a sort of social placebo effect amongst other things) in order to avoid despair, to aid survival and to build community cohesion that offers survival advantages.

This apparent irrationality is perfectly rational and may even be 'willed' - Sartre's famous case of the waiter who 'becomes' a waiter rather than a person is the type of all strategies of survival through inauthenticity. But it does not mean that persons are not capable of being authentic. It may also mean that neuroscientists are only investigating inauthenticity - some subjects decide not to be investigated and these may be the very persons who need to be investigated to make any progress in understanding free will (say). Scientists, indeed all rationalists, have had real difficulty understanding these practical points of living in the world. It is good to see psychologists and neuroscientists beginning a journey towards understanding the counter-productiveness of pure 'objective' rationality even if (unlike us 'existentialists') they still have a way to go yet and may blunder into politics along the way.

Very different problems arise with the placebo effect (where 'not-knowing' is part of the effect) and with homeopathy. In both cases, there seem to be real effects. Yet the difficulty of proving or disproving these effects divides scientists into sceptics and those who are more open-minded in debates that can get increasingly bitter. One solution for some scientists in understanding the first effect is to allow doctors to turn into shamans and keep patients in the dark for their own good. Another in relation to homeopathy is to postulate that water has structural qualities that permit the phenomenon and that, one day, homeopathy might indeed be 'tamed' and introduced back into allopathic (conventional) medicine. The common denominators here (sociologically) are the desire of the 'expert' positivist-minded scientific community to accrue power to itself and to systematise any effects into what is acceptable on positivists' own terms.

However, just as with the problem of free will, it may be that science is reaching the limit of its ability to know and is seeking to create boundaries beyond which there can be only 'magic' (with magic's negative connotations). In fact, true scientists (and there are many magnificent examples in this book) remain open-minded about all anomalies at all times and remain determined to push scientific method to its limits. They know what they do not know.

It may be that the human mind will not be able to know or grasp the true nature of the universe for a number of technical perceptual and measurement reasons and that the modelling will have to move from science to art - or rather to the art of increasingly sophisticated but ultimately untestable mathematical modelling that may pull cosmology back to the domain of belief i.e. belief in the most cogent mathematical model where the components may not be tested, in fact, against real conditions in the world. At this level, science really does revert to religion but the religion of the 'most reasonable belief in the circumstances', certainly not as experimentally verified truth.

A similar process may be happening at the 'mind' level too but under conditions which may be more dangerous for human social development and survival. Experimentally, it is impossible to know all actions or thoughts or all responses and feelings within a conscious human community but neuroscience and medecine may try to do precisely this - creating 'laws' that enter into consciousness and become self-fulfilling as socially constructed reality rather than as true representations of what is the case.

This is important. A physical or cosmological law does not (unless you believe in magic) change the conditions of the universe through enunciation but a psychological or social 'law' changes the conditions of society when people with power decide to take it on and impose it throughout a culture. The power of 'incantation' is understood in the context of the placebo effect and probably applies to many more social conditions than health provision. Social Darwinism came to include racist nonsense but its acceptance by elites resulted in the masses adopting and believing in racial science as if it were true and many (though not all by any means) then became racists with conceptions of inferiority and superiority that may have been technologically true but were biologically idiotic (regardless of morality).

Given that scientists do not KNOW how either the placebo effect or homeopathy works (or otherwise), they should continue to work in good faith and with a bit of humility to establish the mechanisms (whether psychological or physical) for the phenomena but they should not allow politicians and bureaucrats to purloin these studies at the expense of human freedom - nor state as law that something is not so when persons clearly experience it as so. Though Brooks would undoubtedly not agree (given his status within the scientific community as one of its interpreters), it might be argued that, just as free will can never be known not to not exist in a human community amounting to several billion, so the public has a right not to trust scientists absolutely and to demand the right to homeopathic treatment even if it should be 'proved' to be wholly placebo in effect. If it works, don't knock it!

Similarly, if a placebo works in many cases, as it clearly does in pain relief, then this fact should permit the public to accept guidance from people who are not in white coats but can also provide relief and comfort - even real shamans if necessary. What Brooks points out is the real danger that over-enthusiasm for placebo effects will result in a drift away from rational medicine to quackery that causes real damage to persons with severe and very real organic illnesses. He is absolutely right and the way forward is probably an easy tolerance of the self-healing within the mind (thanks to a bit of TLC) in order to ensure that patients continue to get checked up and take white coat advice where it matters. Whether free will, placebo or homeopathy, the men in white coats should continue to investigate and theorise but should not deny phenomena too eagerly from what amounts to ideological distaste or class self-interest.

Where we may get to is a bad scenario or a good scenario. The bad scenario is where the new consensus is that we do not know our own minds and others must take care of us, perhaps by lying (placebo effect) or by controlling and limiting grey area therapies through massive regulation and integration into the mainstream. This is where some would have us go and I suggest that this derives from a personality type that is attracted into bureaucracy and politics.

The second scenario is the good one. It allows persons to make choices as if they had free will all things being equal (even if some neuroscientists might argue against it), is open and transparent about techniques (including the dangerous new zone of neuro-marketing and political 'nudge') and allows, where not harmful, the public to find their own structures of coping that make may use of science and belief, even what positivists might dismiss as magic. In the meantime, if society wants rational behaviour, it can do its part by creating a society of equals with access to full information, power over their environment and sufficient resources.

This review has gone off at a tangent because the book does not raise these questions directly itself. It stops at the science and avoids philosophy - and certainly politics. Whether we understand or do not understand the nature of the universe is unlikely to affect us directly (unless resolution of anomalies such as cold fusion or new particles gives us new energy sources or weapons of war) but any scientific theory about our minds has enormous import for the turn of our culture and our society.

This book is worth reading if you are scientifically curious but it is also worth reading if you like to think of yourself as an educated citizen. You will learn two big things amongst the many small things - that science is far more complex than the establishment of simple truths (a fact worth bearing in mind in accepting any standard view of climate change) and that important work is going on now on anomalies related to consciousness that we, as free individuals, must get a grip on lest others with power take them up and adapt them to purposes that end our freedoms with cataclysmic speed. Educate yourself or others will educate you to their requirements.

[For an associated comment, making use of the cold fusion case study in the book - http://asithappens.tppr.info/journal/... ]
Profile Image for Paul (Life In The Slow Lane).
617 reviews31 followers
June 24, 2020
Nine Things That Don't Make Sense Plus Four Boring Things. Just Skip Those.

When I read the title, I was expecting a discussion on things like: Why, after 200,000 years of evolution, our politicians are getting more stupid? Why do globes have the North Pole up the top? Why can't Australia be the Land Up Above? Who decided that light should travel at 186,000 mps? Why is gravity the strength it is? Why can't I read faster than my sister? No. This is way more esoteric than that. That doesn't mean the book is all boring - just some bits. Brooks has explained things in a manner that you don't have to be a Sheldon Cooper to understand them. It's just that most people will find at least one chapter (or more) boring. Even so, I learned a hell of a lot from this book. You might too. Have your Wikipedia handy.

So here we have a bunch of cosmologists, astronomers and physicists all sitting on the discoveries of Newton, Einstein etc, and all looking smugly at each other as they think they've figured out the meaning of life, the universe and everything, only to discover to their horror - they haven't! Why are those damn galaxies we see in our telescopes not behaving like we told them to? Hmm. Must be dark matter, or maybe Darth Vader. Nope. Maybe gravity isn't what we thought. Hrrumph! (How do we tell everyone - we don't know?) As it turns out, all those universal constants aren't as constant as we thought.

Has SETI actually heard from aliens? And who really cares? It's not like they're going to come a-knocking wanting to sell us their new-and-improved alien Tupperware any time soon.

The placebo effect? More common than you might think. And more effective too.

Homeopathy? Well I'm an evidence-based science man myself, but Brooks, to his credit, takes a very open-minded position on this.

In chapter 3, I detected a mild anti-Australian sentiment, but I guess us "Colonials" aren't known for our astrophysics prowess. Apparently we should stick to wrastlin' kangaroos and avoiding dangerous drop bears.


There's no doubt, Brooks has done a truck load of research. 15% of the book is dedicated to telling us that. His writing style is easy to read, but I did find my eyes glazing over occasionally. On the whole though - a pretty unbiased work, and dare I say, interesting.
Profile Image for Ryan.
1,155 reviews150 followers
September 19, 2018
An amazing book about what science should be (and too rarely is) -- the exploration of results that don't make sense, and finding the actual reason why something is the way it is. The author describes some results or unexplained phenomena (ranging from "why does death exist" to the cold fusion experiments to the meaning of free will to whether fundamental constants vary with time...), how people try to explain these, and the problems people have faced with the rest of the scientific establishment when looking for answers.
Profile Image for Smurfette.
71 reviews8 followers
August 1, 2019
Didn't manage to read the last two chapters since I needed to leave the book behind in our Airbnb but all that I have read was super fascinating and educational. Brooks style of writing was also quite funny at times and easily readable.
Felt like a 'Fitness Salad' for my vacation-dead brain
Profile Image for Ryan.
604 reviews27 followers
November 6, 2011
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 has 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.
Profile Image for Joel Tone.
183 reviews
June 29, 2011
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”
– Isaac Asimov

I recently read 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Micheal Brooks. It’s a popular science book that opens with the above quote and discusses thirteen things that are “funny” about modern science. I really enjoyed this book.

Each of the chapters in this book describes something that’s a little (or a lot) off when described by the current best theory. Why does sex exist when asexual reproduction is so much simpler, more efficient, and less error-prone? Where is 96% of the universe? The author explores the current thinking on these questions and shows where scientists are working on the gap between theory and reality.

The book itself is well written and lays out the problems in relatively easy to understand terms. Some of the transitions between chapters are a little awkward – this is more a collection of essays than a continuous narrative. This book reminded me a lot of Borderlands of Science without being quite as fringe.

I hope that Micheal Brooks updates this book in five or ten years to show how things have or have not changed. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have any other books out as I would love to read more of his essays.

New Scientist has an article that can give you a decent feel of Micheal Brooks’ writing on this topic: 13 things that do not make sense.


As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life – so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls.
– Matt Cartmill
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