Authors: Michael Brooks
13 THINGS THAT DON’T MAKE SENSE
‘Entertaining … engagingly written … a worthwhile read for budding explorers of new worlds’ Jon Turney,
‘Odd data clusters are crime scenes, over which Brooks combs with the reassuring casualness of an expert … to provide riveting cliffhangers of
scientific detection … admirable’ Steven Poole,
‘This entertaining and often provocative book examines such mysteries as dark matter and dark energy, the prospect of life on Mars, sex and death, free will and the placebo effect, among other head-scratchers … The book is at its best when Brooks throws himself into the action. He undergoes transcranial magnetic stimulation to test the assumption that he has free will, and subjects himself to electric shocks for a placebo-response test … This elegantly written, meticulously researched and thought-provoking book provides a window into how science actually works, and is sure to spur intense debate.’ Jennifer Ouellette,
‘Buy yourself a copy, and prepare yourself to be entertained and challenged in equal measure’ Robert Matthews,
‘Brooks expertly works his way through … hotly debated quandaries in a smooth, engaging writing style reminiscent of Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould … every mystery is brought to life in vivid detail, and wit and humour are sprinkled throughout’ Anahad O’Connor,
New York Times
‘Brooks is an exemplary science writer. His explanations have the sort of clarity you often yearn for when you read about science, but rarely find. I’m relatively ignorant when it comes to science. But now I feel I can discuss complex things … This is the sort of science book one always hopes for. Learned, but easy to read. Packed with detail, but clear. Reading it will make you feel clever.’ William Leith,
‘Like Indiana Jones in a lab coat, Brooks throws himself energetically into the search and comes back with first-hand news from the wild frontiers of weird science.’ Iain Finlayson,
‘Sparklingly written … Brooks’ enthusiasm is infectious’
Times Higher Education Supplement
‘A fascinating read … This clear-eyed book is a refreshing insight’
‘Wow! is one of the things that Michael Brooks includes here – it is the signal from space that may have come from an alien civilization – but it’s also the way I feel about this book’s magical mystery tour. You will be amazed and astonished when you learn that science has been unable to come up with a working definition of life, why death should happen at all, why sex is necessary, or whether cold fusion is a hoax or one of the greatest breakthroughs of all time. Strap yourself in and prepare for a Wow! of an experience.’ Richard Ellis, author of
The Empty Ocean
‘Excellent … Brooks is breezy and fun – always readable and never dull … each chapter is a little vessel of delights … deserves to be up there as one of the best popular science books of 2008/9. Recommended.’
, who holds a PhD in quantum physics, is a consultant to
magazine. His writing has appeared in the
Guardian, Independent, Observer
Times Higher Educational Supplement
. He has lectured at Cambridge University, the American Museum of Natural History and New York University, and is a regular speaker and debate chair at the Science Festival in Brighton.
THE MOST INTRIGUING SCIENTIFIC MYSTERIES OF OUR TIME
This paperback edition published in 2010
First published in Great Britain in 2009 by
PROFILE BOOKS LTD
3A Exmouth House
London EC1R 0JH
First published in the United States of America by
Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York
Copyright © Michael Brooks, 2009, 2010
This book is based on an article that originally appeared
in the 19 March, 2005 issue of the
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
Bookmarque, Croydon, Surrey
Book design by Elizabeth Rendfleich
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN 978 1 86197 647 5
eISBN 978 1 84765 130 3
To Mr. Sumner, for lasting inspiration and fascination.
I hope this repays some of my debt.
Also to Phillippa, Millie, and Zachary for inspiration every day.
The most exciting phrase to
hear in science, the one that
heralds the most discoveries,
is not “Eureka!,” but “That’s
funny . . .”
13 THINGS THAT DON’T MAKE SENSE
am standing in the magnificent lobby of the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, watching three Nobel laureates struggle with the
It’s certainly not an easy elevator to deal with; it’s an open mesh cage, with a winch system that looks like something Isambard
Kingdom Brunel might have built. When I first got into it three days ago, I felt like I was traveling back in time. But at
least I got it to work.
Embarrassed for the scientists, I look away for a moment and distract myself with the grandeur of my surroundings. The Metropole
was built at the end of the nineteenth century and is almost ridiculously ornate. The walls are paneled with vast slabs of
marble, the ceilings decorated in subtle but beautiful gold and sage green geometric patterns. The glittering crystal chandeliers
radiate a warmth that makes me want to curl up and go to sleep beneath their light. In fact, there are glowing, comforting
lights everywhere. Outside, in the Place de Brouckère, the wind is blowing a bitter cold across the city; faced with the bleak
December beyond those revolving doors, I feel like I could stand here forever.
The Nobel laureates are still struggling. No one else seems to have noticed their plight, and I’m wondering whether to walk
across the lobby and offer help. When I had my long fight with the door, I discovered there’s something about the shutter
mechanism that defies logic—when you think it must be locked, it isn’t; it needs a final pull. But it occurs to me that people
who have attached Nobel Academy pins to their lapels ought to be able to work that out for themselves.
I like to think of scientists as being on top of things, able to explain the world we live in, masters of their universe.
But maybe that’s just a comforting delusion. When I can tear myself away from the farce playing out in the elevator, I will
be getting into a cab and leaving behind perhaps the most fascinating conference I have ever attended. Not because there was
new scientific insight—quite the contrary. It was the fact that there was no insight, seemingly no way forward for these scientists,
that made the discussions so interesting. In science, being completely and utterly stuck can be a good thing; it often means
a revolution is coming.
The discussion at the conference was focused on string theory, the attempt to tie quantum theory together with Einstein’s
theory of relativity. The two are incompatible; we need to rework them to describe the universe properly, and string theory
may be our best bet. Or maybe not. I have spent the last three days listening to some of today’s greatest minds discuss how
we might combine relativity and quantum theory. And their conclusion was that, more than three decades after the birth of
string theory, we still don’t really know where to start.
This was a Solvay physics conference, a meeting with the richest of histories. At the first Solvay conference in 1911—the
world’s first physics conference—the delegates debated what was to be made of the newly discovered phenomenon of radioactivity.
Here in this hotel Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, and the young Albert Einstein debated how it was that radioactive materials
could apparently defy the laws of conservation of energy and momentum. Radioactivity was an anomaly; it didn’t make sense.
The problem was eventually solved by the birth of quantum theory. At the 1927 Solvay conference, though, the strange nature
of quantum theory caused its own problems, provoking Einstein and Niels Bohr, Lorentz and Erwin Schrödinger, Ernest Rutherford
and John von Neumann to sit discussing these new laws of physics with the same degree of confusion as they had shown toward
It was an extraordinary moment in the history of science. Quantum theory encapsulated the novel idea that some things in nature
are entirely random, happen entirely without cause. This made no sense to Einstein or Bohr, and the pair spent their time
outside the formal discussions sparring over what it all meant. They had entirely different philosophical approaches to dealing
with that mystery, however. To Bohr, it meant some things might be beyond the scope of science. To Einstein, it meant something
was wrong with the theory; it was here in this hotel that Einstein made his famous remark that “God does not play dice.” Bohr’s
reaction faces up to scientists’ biggest frustration: that they don’t get to set the rules. “Einstein,” he said, “stop telling
God what to do.”
Neither man lived to see a satisfactory solution to the enigma—it remains unsolved, in fact. But if some delegates at the
twenty-third Solvay conference are to be believed, it seems Bohr might have been right about there being limits to science.
Half of the string theorists present, some of the greatest minds in the world, are now convinced that we can never fully comprehend
the universe. The other seekers after a “theory of everything” think there must be some explanation available to us. But they
have no idea where to find it. What has led to this extraordinary situation? Yet another anomaly.
This one was discovered in 1997. Analysis of the light from a distant supernova led astronomers to a startling conclusion:
that the universe is expanding, and that this expansion is getting faster and faster all the time. The revelation has stunned
cosmologists; no one knows why this should be so. All they can say is that some mysterious “dark energy” is blowing up the
This anomaly, an apparently simple observation, has brought string theory to its knees. It cuts away at everything its proponents
thought they had achieved. Put simply, they can’t explain it—and many of them feel they should stop trying. There is a straightforward
answer staring us in the face, they say: our universe must be one of many universes, each with different characteristics.
To try to find reasons why those characteristics are as they are in our universe, they argue, is a waste of time.
But it is not. There is something inspiring about this—and any—anomaly. When Thomas Kuhn wrote
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
in the early 1960s, he wanted to examine the history of science for clues to the nature of discovery. The clues led him to
invent the term—now a cliché—
. Scientists work with one set of ideas about how the world is. Everything they do, be it experimental or theoretical work,
is informed by, and framed within, that set of ideas. There will be some evidence that doesn’t fit, however. At first, that
evidence will be ignored or sabotaged. Eventually, though, the anomalies will pile up so high they simply cannot be ignored
or sabotaged any longer. Then comes crisis.
Crisis, Kuhn said, is soon followed by the paradigm shift in which everyone gains a radically new way of looking at the world.
Thus were conceived ideas like relativity, quantum theory, and the theory of plate tectonics.
The dark energy situation is another such crisis. You can see it as depressing, a hint that science has hit a brick wall.
But, equally, you can see it as exciting and inspiring. Something has now got to give, and the breakthrough could come from
anywhere at any time. What is even more exciting is that it is not the only anomaly of our time—not by a long way.
It is not even the only one in cosmology. Another cosmic problem, dark matter, was first spotted in the 1930s. Following Kuhn’s
template almost exactly, it was ignored for nearly forty years. Vera Rubin, an astronomer at Washington, D.C.’s Carnegie Institution,
was the one to nail it down and make people deal with it. In the early 1970s, she showed that the shape, size, and spin of
galaxies means either there is something wrong with gravity or there’s much more matter out there in space than we can see.
No one wants to mess with Newton’s laws governing gravity, but neither do we know what this dark matter might be.
It’s sometimes comforting to imagine that science is mastering the universe, but the facts tell a different story. Put together,
dark matter and dark energy make up 96 percent of the universe. Just two anomalous scientific results have told us that we
can see only a tiny fraction of what we call the cosmos. The good news is that cosmologists are now, perhaps, emerging from
Kuhn’s crisis stage and are in the process of reinventing our universe—or they will be once they manage to work out where
the paradigm shift should lead.
Other, equally stirring anomalies—revolutions-in-waiting, perhaps—await our attention closer to home too. There is the placebo
effect: carefully planned, rigorously controlled experiments repeatedly show that the mind can affect the body’s biochemistry
in ways that banish pain and produce startling medical effects. Except that, like dark matter, no one is quite sure that the
placebo effect really exists. Cold fusion experiments, where nuclear reactions inside metal atoms safely release more energy
than they consume, have also survived nearly two decades of skepticism, and the U.S. Department of Energy recently declared
that the laboratory evidence is strong enough to merit funding of a new round of experimental research. The thing is, cold
fusion goes against all the received wisdom in physics; there is no good explanation for why it should work—or even strong
evidence that it does. But it is still worth investigating: the hints that we do have suggest that it could expose a new,
deeper theory of physics that could have an enormous impact on many aspects of science. Then there is the “intelligent” signal
from outer space that has defied explanation for thirty years; the enigma of our sense of free will despite all scientific
evidence to the contrary; the spacecraft that are being pushed off course by an unknown force; the trouble we have explaining
the origin of both sex and death using our best biological theories … the list goes on.
The philosopher Karl Popper once said, rather cruelly perhaps, that “science may be described as the art of systematic oversimplification.”
Though that is an oversimplification in itself, it is clear that science still has plenty to be humble about. But here is
the point that is often missed by scientists eager to look as if nothing is beyond their abilities. Dark energy has been described
as the most embarrassing problem in physics. But it is not; it is surely the greatest opportunity in physics—it gives us reason
to examine our oversimplifications and correct them, bringing us to a new state of knowledge. 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.
In the 1500s, a set of celestial anomalies led the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus to the realization that the Earth goes around
the Sun—not the other way around. In the 1770s, the chemists Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley inferred the existence
of oxygen through experimental results that defied all the theories of the time. Through several decades, plenty of people
noticed the strange jigsaw-piece similarity between the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa, but it wasn’t
until 1915 that someone pointed out it could be more than a coincidence. Alfred Wegener’s insightful observation led to our
theory of plate tectonics and continental drift; it is an observation that, at a stroke, did away with the “stamp-collecting”
nature of geologic science and gave it a unifying theory that opened up billions of years of Earth’s history for inspection.
Charles Darwin performed a similar feat for biology with his theory of evolution by natural selection; the days of remarking
on the wide variety of life on Earth without being able to tie them all together were suddenly over. It is not just an issue
of experiments and observations either; there are intellectual anomalies. The incompatibility of two theories, for example,
led Albert Einstein to devise relativity, a revolutionary theory that has forever changed our view of space, time, and the
vast reaches of the universe.
Einstein didn’t win his Nobel Prize for relativity. It was another anomaly—the strange nature of heat radiation—that brought
him science’s ultimate accolade. Observations of heat had led Max Planck to suggest that radiation could be considered as
existing in lumps, or quanta. For Planck, this quantum theory was little more than a neat mathematical trick, but Einstein
used it to show it was much more. Inspired by Planck’s work, Einstein proved that light was quantized—and that experiments
could reveal each quantum packet of energy. It was this discovery, that the stuff of the universe was built from blocks, that
won him the 1922 Nobel Prize for Physics.
Not that a Nobel Prize for Physics is the answer to everything—my view across the Metropole’s lobby makes that abundantly
clear. Why can’t these three men, three of the brightest minds of their generation, see the obvious solution? I can’t help
wondering if Einstein struggled with that elevator; if he did, by now even he, shaking his fist at the Almighty, would have
called out for help.
Admitting that you’re stuck doesn’t come easy to scientists; they have lost the habit of recognizing it as the first step
on a new and exciting path. But once you’ve done it, and enrolled your colleagues in helping resolve the sticky issue rather
than proudly having them ignore it, you can continue with your journey. In science, being stuck can be a sign that you are
about to make a great leap forward. The things that don’t make sense are, in some ways, the only things that matter.