Book review

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Mysteries of Our Times

13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
Read date: July 2018

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time by Michael Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fascinating book! Michael Brooks surveys thirteen areas of enquiry – some narrow and deeply embedded in science, such as the search for dark matter and dark energy, others already discarded by mainstream science but still refusing to completely lie down and die, such as cold fusion and homeopathy, and a few that are broader and don’t naturally fit into a single narrow field of study, like sex, death and free will.

He looks at where we are in investigating them, and then pokes and prods at the challenging questions, and the possible explanations. Why do most complex living things die, for example? Not all do, and it’s possible to significantly extend lifespans, in some cases apparently indefinitely, via mechanisms such as gene editing. So why would it be there in the first place? If genes just wanted to propagate themselves, then surely best to do it from the existing host, rather than risk killing the existing host and chancing that there are enough progeny out there to pass on the genes themselves?

Other questions explore areas that just appear to have been made up by science to create convenient explanations for things. Dark matter and dark energy are like this. From the way stars rotate around the centres of a galaxy, we can use the laws of gravity as we understand them to estimate the total mass in the galaxy. And, based on what we see, there isn’t nearly enough visible mass there. Hence the need for additional dark matter. But we can’t detect it in any wavelength. Which means it must have very specific properties, in order to remain hidden. And we don’t have any explanation for the existence of such matter. So maybe it’s our understanding of the laws of gravity that’s wrong? Right now, we simply don’t know!

And so on, across thirteen fields of such broad range that it’s hard not to be captured by many of them. Underlying them all is the theme that science as a field finds it hard to change its mind. In part, this is a very good thing: any new explanation can’t discard all the data accumulated so far, it must explain all that we already know, plus these additional observations that are currently unexplained. And that’s a very hard test. But this is also about how scientists are people, and people don’t like to have their world models turned upside down. So it’s a book about how we practice science itself, as much as about these particular mysteries.

I enjoyed it very much. Well written, with some mind-spinning thoughts in it. Many paper books that I read get released back into the wild after their first read, as perhaps interesting but not worthy of a re-visit. This one, I shall be keeping, and opening up on a winter’s evening for a quick browse, and a follow-up online to see where we are on some of these mysteries.

View all my reviews

Leave a Reply