13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, by Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks’s 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense turned up on a lot of “Best science books of 2008” lists, and the concept of a book about scientific anomalies seemed interesting, so I ordered it from Amazon. It’s a quick read (a mere 210 pages, and breezily written), but ultimately a frustrating book.

It took me several chapters to pin down what bugged me about the book, but it all became clear when I looked at the back cover flap, and saw that the author is a former editor of New Scientist. The really pretty much sums it up– in physics circles, New Scientist is known for publishing three or four articles a year proclaiming the imminent overthrow of relativity or quantum mechanics, usually with an “Einstein Was Wrong” sort of headline. They have a very consistent bias toward quirky or unconventional work, and that’s exactly what bugs me about this book.

The list of topics in the table of contents are, indeed, 13 things that could have interesting stuff written about them: dark matter/ energy, the Pioneer anomaly, the possibility of a changing fine-structure constant, cold fusion, life, the Viking experiment that may or may not have detected life, the “Wow!” SETI signal, mimivirus, death, sexual reproduction, free will, the placebo effect, and homeopathy. The problem is, none of them are explained in anywhere near enough depth, and the omissions are always in the direction of making unconventional theories seem much more plausible.

In the physics and astronomy sections, for example, the dark matter chapter makes a passing reference to the Bullet Cluster observations, and says a bunch of unkind things about how the authors were arrogantly ignoring modified gravity theories. It barely explains what the Bullet Cluster results were, though, and merely asserts that the whole thing can be explained by modified gravity, without explaining how.

Or, take the chapter on possible variations of the fine-structure constant. Brooks cites the work of John Webb, on spectroscopic measurements of the light from distant quasars, which suggests the possibility that the fine-structure constant (α, which is equal to the electron charge squared divided by Planck’s constant times the speed of light) was slightly smaller in the distant past. His presentation makes it sound as if Webb’s result is absolutely rock solid, writing “You don’t even need Webb’s level of certainty to claim a Nobel Prize for the discovery of an entirely new particle.”

Reading this chapter suggests that the scientific establishment are a bunch of hidebound ignoramuses, ignoring Webb’s result out of spite, because it threatens well-established theories. It’s a lovely story, as long as you don’t happen to know about the large number of other observations that don’t agree with Webb’s analysis. I count nine other spectroscopic limits on page 11 of this review article, none of which are consistent with Webb’s work. Several of them have the opposite sign.

Webb’s work is controversial because the data are not clear. Webb may be perfectly convinced of his result, but other people have done similar observations and gotten radically different results. The idea of a changing α is not widely accepted not because of scientific inertia, but because there is no consensus about what the observations say.

There are convenient omissions all through the sections where I know something about the subject, which means that when the topic turns toward sciences outside my range of expertise, I am completely unwilling to trust what Brooks is saying. It might be that, as he says, careful and reproducible studies suggest that there’s something to the central claims of homeopathy, but he’s given me no reason to believe that the data haven’t been cherry-picked to point in that direction. Which kind of ruins the whole book.

Brooks has assembled a bunch of interesting topics, and his writing about them is clear and engaging. I can’t recommend the book, though, because I don’t trust the way he handles the claims of the scientists involved.