13 Things That Don't Make Sense by Michael Brooks [audiobook]
This is Michael Brooks's 2009 book about some of the biggest and most unsettling mysteries in modern science.
I have mixed feelings about this book.
On the one hand, it is phenomenally well-written. Brooks is often spectacular at explaining scientific concepts -- in two paragraphs, for example, he was able to get across the evidence for dark matter based on galactic spectrometric readings using no concept more complicated than a yo-yo. And while he doesn't have, say, Michael Lewis's deft hand for nonfiction characterization, he still gives each of the scientists in his tales a bit of presence, and he himself lets his own dry humor peek through fairly regularly.
And the subject matter is delightfully promising: here are the Big Things We Don't Understand. Here are the "Huh. That's funny..." head-scratchers that, if unraveled, could spark scientific revolutions and deepen our understanding of the cosmos, the world, and ourselves.
And for most of the book, I was on the author's side. He started with his strongest material: the perplexing notions of "Dark Matter" and "Dark Energy". And I'm embarrassed to say I gave him a pass as he wandered away from that home territory. He talked about anomalous readings about life on Mars, and I thought, "Huh, that's an interesting historical tidbit." He even talked about some tentative replications of the 90s' infamous "cold fusion" experiments and I figured, "Oh, I had heard that those were unreproducible. Neat that somebody was able to do that."
I never checked up on any of this in wikipedia. It felt like that would spoil the story.
And then we get to the last chapter: homeopathy. Yes, *that* pile of risible, childish bullshit. There was a brief moment of "is the mystery why anyone buys into this bunkum?" and then, no, Brooks was actually making the case for homeopathy. And suddenly it became clear how his methods worked -- seeing the techniques laid bare in the final chapter made them retroactively peek out of all the previous ones. He picked a subject (homeopathy) where there is vast scientific consensus (it doesn't work). Then he dismissed that consensus and focused on the few fringe figures arguing against it, and the only experimental data that supported it.
Then it became a kind of "God of the gaps" argument. Well, if science can't disprove every single one of these observations with anything stronger than "it looks like the random noise you'd expect from running a zillion tests on this", then MAYBE THERE'S SOMETHING THERE. If we can't prove wrong every single one of the countless homeopathic remedies in their hefty source books, then MAYBE IT HAS SEEEKRIT POWERS. And then he's off on a tangent of woo explaining how "water takes on various temporary hydrogen-bond structures" should equal "water remembers things". (In a word: no.)
I started doing more research on the earlier chapters, and most fell like dominos. No, the Pioneer anomaly has a nuanced but widely-accepted explanation. The "Wow!" signal is not obviously alien in origin. Cold fusion was, as we all heard, unreproducible.
I stopped researching the other chapters. I'd seen enough, and I was sad. Sad, and disappointed in how gullible I was.
And it's a damn shame, because there's a good book in here. Hell, there are enough vast unknowns in mathematics alone to make for hefty reading. And Brooks is a hell of a writer, with entertaining depictions of his fringe scientists and their fringe theories, and interesting musings about the implications should those fringe ideas turn out to be true.
Too bad it all had to be poisoned with wishful woo.
For next week: I have so, so much to catch up on -- reviews of Love & Friendship, Moana, Rogue One, and La La Land. Meanwhile, I'm reading a book about science and cooking, and catching up on podcasts. And as usual, while exercising, I'm still watching season 10 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.