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.

Comments

  1. #1 Emory Kimbrough
    January 25, 2009

    There’s just one thing worse than always believing in orthodoxy just because it’s orthodoxy: Always believing in heterodoxy just because it’s heterodoxy.

  2. #2 Tedd Pierce
    January 25, 2009

    I had a similar feeling about this book when I read it. The author thought there was something to explain about homeopathy, and that is the one thing on his list I am very certain has no good evidence. Heck, there is no way it really could work. Because of this, I was quite leery of his treatment of the twelve other subjects.

    The author doesn’t seem to be anti-science to any extent, but will accept just about any evidence, no matter how well supported. I was wondering if he was just pandering to attract an audience.

  3. #3 David Phillips
    January 25, 2009

    I haven’t read the book but from your summary that it looks like all thirteen things are astroparticle/gravitational physics. I guess if you’re New Scientist and you think you sell magazines only by saying “Einstein was wrong!” then perhaps that may be the only physics that catches your “interest.”

    There’s a lot more physics out there, though, that you can think of as “not making sense.”
    1) How about subwavelength imaging? There’s a lot of work on it right now. It’s pretty darn classical and it can’t really be spun in the Einstein’s wrong mold, but it is interesting. How can you resolve something at 10 times shorter distances than the wavelength used to probe it? I wouldn’t have thought it possible.
    2) To pick a topic that has been near and dear to me, Electromagnetically Induced Transparency (EIT) is a very simple, straightforward piece of basic quantum mechanics, yet is deeply counter-intuitive from a classical perspective. (What do you mean that I turn on more resonant light and I get less absorption? If you think of atomic internal states and laser fields like a pinball game, you wouldn’t think hitting the flippers more would lead to the ball moving less.)
    3) A little more recently near to my heart is how about detecting planets around other stars? You can’t see them yet you can see there effects. You can measure changes in the velocity of a star of less than 1 m/s. That’s magical.
    4) How about Debbie Jin’s work on turning fermions into bosons along a continuum of scattering lengths. Harder to explain but well understood, weird and not high energy physics.
    5) How does Giant Magnetoresistance (GMR)? It’s a little old but someone or other just awarded a prize for it, and it’s cool.

    That’s certainly enough. I feel like we need someone to come to the defense of the breadth of physics whenever it is portrayed as just high energy. There is lots of interesting, weird and at first glance non-sensical dynamics going on in the world that isn’t best understood in terms of the fundamental equations of some grand theory of everything.

    I know I’m preaching to choir here, but here I am preaching.

  4. #4 dr. dave
    January 25, 2009

    Thanks for the review/warning… I almost picked this up at B&N the other day, but something distracted me mid-reach.

    Thanks also for echoing my sentiments about New Scientist. I always tell my own students – “Never believe anything you read in New Scientist until you read it somewhere else.”

    (Yes, one could argue that sentiment is true about any source. But I think it’s MORE true about NS than most popular magazines.)

  5. #5 Jim Lund
    January 26, 2009

    Why are people giving Brooks such gentle reviews? The physics results are typical of the lot. John Webb’s fine-structure result is of the same sort as the Viking experiment result. Interesting if true, but not reproduced and instead contradicted by other experiments and thus not so interesting.

    Brooks doesn’t understand that for something to not ‘Make Sense’ it has to be true. Anomalous *verified* results, results that can’t be explained theoretically or seem to contradict existing results are the kinds of things that ‘Don’t Make Sense’ but could be cool. These are the kinds of things that Brooks should be writing about.

    The placebo effect has two components, self-delusion and a poorly understood mechanism whereby the state of mind can affect the body. The mind-> body connection is interesting and poorly understood, the proper subject of Brook’s book.

    Brooks other topics–death and homeopathy–are complete nonsense. Homeopathy is pseudoscience, bunkum. And there well understood evolutionary reasons why organisms die, death (and aging) are not even anomalous.

  6. #6 karl
    January 26, 2009

    The Amateur Scientist podcast did an interview with the author:

    http://www.amateurscientist.org/2008/08/inside-amateur-scientist-studio-dr.html

    It’s not quite a hard hitting interview as some might like. Brian, like a lot of us, isn’t a scientist and we’re generally not equipped to deal with the claims but I think he nails it when he says:

    “I’m not sure Dr. Brooks is full of crap so much as compelled by a lot of bad evidence.”

    Brian does at least hold his feet to the fire regarding his chapter on homeopathy.

  7. #7 asad
    January 26, 2009

    I haven’t read the book but from your summary that it looks like all thirteen things are astroparticle/gravitational physics.

    Uh, forget the book, it seems like you didn’t even read Chad’s post. Seven of the 13 aren’t even physics (“…life,…mimivirus, death, sexual reproduction, free will, the placebo effect, and homeopathy.”), one is non-astroparticle/gravitational physics (cold fusion), and one is life science masquerading as astrophysics because it was done on a different planet (the Viking thing).

  8. #8 Ian
    January 26, 2009

    I’m waiting on “13 New Scientist Writers Who Don’t Make Sense” by Chad Orzel….

  9. #9 söve
    January 26, 2009

    thanks.

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    January 26, 2009

    Re: homeopathy

    The idea behind homeopathy is to take a substance that (in most cases) would be toxic if taken in the pure form and go through several tens of steps (typically 20-40, but I have heard of as high as 100) where you dilute it a hundredfold at each step. Which means that the resulting “medicine” should, statistically speaking, contain zero molecules of the so-called active ingredient. That’s enough to tell me that a homeopathic remedy should be as effective as a placebo. Yes, there is something to the placebo effect, which is why drug trials always have to include a placebo group as a control. There is no other remotely plausible mechanism by which homeopathy can work.

    At the time (mid 19th century) it was a significant advance, because most other therapies then available were toxic. Also, nobody at the time knew Avogadro’s number (though this was around the time that Avogadro realized that there must be such a number). Today, it should be considered, if at all, as a footnote in medical history.

  11. #11 guthrie
    January 26, 2009

    Michael Brooks wrote this pile of rubbish just before Christmas:
    http://www.newscientist.com/commenting/browse?id=mg20026876.000&page=1

    He’s been pasted for it on the letters page, and I had a good rant on my blog about it.
    What is disturbing is that the man apparently has a Physics PhD, and has taught science to children in Africa!
    Yet gets so much so wrong, the article I linked to above getting a C- from me. Poor argument by quotation, lack of knowledge of modern science and its practise, hobby horse riding, poorly thought out appeals to popularity without any philosophical or political background apparent to beef it up.

    New Scientist was better when they were fortnightly and didn’t have to pad the science out with pretend revolutions.

    Quoting from our host:
    “It might be that, as he says, careful and reproducible studies suggest that there’s something to the central claims of homeopathy,”

    Makes it clear to me that Brooks should forfeit any further right to be called a scientist. I am definitely not recomending his book to anyone.
    I would however be interested in why he seems so stupid.

  12. #12 Frederick Ross
    January 26, 2009

    What doesn’t make sense about mimivirus?

  13. #13 mollishka
    May 31, 2009

    Anyone know *where* he got this supposed PhD from? His website just says he “holds a PhD in quantum physics,” but not only doesn’t say where from (bells ringing yet?) but the qualifier in there of “quantum” just sets the bullshit sensors off. (You can’t get a PhD in quantum physics; you can get a PhD in physics while doing research on quantum physics…)

  14. #14 komik videolar
    November 17, 2009

    I’m waiting on “13 New Scientist Writers Who Don’t Make Sense” by Chad Orzel….

  15. #15 Skybison
    April 4, 2010

    Man do I regert buying this book. I was fliping through it at a bookstore today and bought it because it seemed very interesting. Normally a chapter on Homeopathy would have tuned me off but I misread the sub-title and assumed it was asking “Why do so many people believe this nonsense?”

  16. #16 wad
    December 29, 2010

    I sincerely can’t believe Michael Brooks has any degree in physics. He makes such mistakes from the beginning that even his beloved secondary school teacher would givem him an F.

    For example he doesn’t understand planetary motion:

    “Something with Earth’s mass has to be moving relatively fast to maintain its orbit.”

    According to Newton’s law, the orbit of Earth is completely independent of its mass. Unbelievable.

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