When a review copy arrived of Thirteen Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks, I handed it straight over to my husband. He sat down, opened it and pretty much read until he was finished. He loved this book, and so I asked him to do a recorded interview with me. The following is a tidier version of the recording, taking out as much of the interrupting (him), sentence-finishing (me), talking at the same time (and simultaneously at cross-purposes) that I could…
Me : So just give me a brief resumé of what the book’s about?
Him: It concerns scientific anomalies. The author says there is often an established way of looking at things, but evidence that doesn’t fit into the orthodox theory can begin to mount. Initially that evidence is dismissed and ignored until it becomes so prevalent that the current theory is squished and squashed to fit it in. And eventually someone – usually a very brilliant individual – comes up with a completely new theory that pushes aside much of the past assumptions but incorporates these anomalies. That’s how science progresses. He uses the example of the idea that the planets orbited around the earth. As scientists got better and better at measuring the orbits of the planets they had to come up with more and more fancy explanations about why they had strange orbits and it was only when Galileo suggested they all went around the sun that suddenly there was a huge leap forward…
Me: He did get imprisoned by the Spanish inquisition for quite a long time.
Him: Well, exactly there is a lot of resistance to these sort of things and one of the things he does very well within the book is that he talks about the individuals involved, he talks about the people who made these discoveries and often they’re very reticent about them, you know, these are not hot heads who are trying to turn over current thinking, these are serious scientists and obviously some of these anomalies are embarrassing.
Me: Give me an example of that.
Him: Well, the most embarrassing one is cold fusion. Fusion is the great hope of producing energy like the sun and cold fusion is supposed to be impossible. But two people apparently made this happen in a lab, in a glass jar, at room temperature.
Him: Exactly. But they had some funding from a university who thought it would be really good PR to go big on this and subsequently three labs tried to reproduce the results and failed and there was a huge…
Him: …outcry and these people were discredited and lots of people working in this field were forced to stop. So it’s become a completely discredited field and no one wants to be associated with it. But the author is gently pointing out it’s not as cut and dried, that actually one of the labs that didn’t reproduce it actually got different results and changed them…
Him: And again he’s quite careful because, you know, you could see conspiracy everywhere or you can just see mistakes, he’s not saying one thing or the other he’s just saying surely people ought to look at this because if it is true it would overturn many of the current theories.
Me : Rivalries between scientists are not rare at all….
Him : It’s interesting because it does show you how science progresses and it’s not this…
Him: …monolithic knowledge, nor is it strictly evidence-based; it’s very much affected by fashions and
Me: And funding
Him: …and who controls it. I thought one of the funnier stories is all about the WOW signal. Two scientists back in the sixties …
Me: I presume this is not World of Warcraft.
Him: No, not World of Warcraft… hypothesised that if an alien race were going to communicate with us, how would they do it? The signal they hypothesised was a very particular signal, a very narrow frequency, it had to be able to travel a long distance. It was just a guess. Many, many years later they found the signal. This radio transmitter that was looking for signals…
Me: Found it
Him : Momentarily, but it was there. Now it’s never been explained, never been seen again, it could be nothing but…
Me: Or it could be a whole episode of the X-Files.
Him: Exactly. All the people who have struggled really hard to explain it have yet to come up with an explanation.
Me: Okay, so what are some of the other mysteries?
Him: One you’ll be interested in is Darwinism. The two things he talks about are death and sex…
Me: Common dinner party topics.
Him: …and Darwinism, one of the most important scientific theories of all time, that’s made sense of so many things, cannot explain death or sex, you know, the trite explanations of why they might have evolved don’t actually work when you apply the science and study the species.
Me: Sex I can understand but death, surely you don’t need an explanation as such for death?
Him: Darwinism is not an altruistic theory, it’s about the selfish gene and self-preservation; well the best form of self-preservation is not dying. And there are species that don’t die, so why on earth would you evolve…
Me: What kinds of species don’t die?
Him: Well, microbes and the like.
Me: Are you saying why don’t we put all of our money and scientific research into immortality?
Him: There’s a number of things to look at, but one main idea is that it’s more about evolution of the group than just the individual. Which is an original idea that Darwinism is not now thought to support. It used to be thought that we evolved in order that humanity could move forward. Then it was shown that this doesn’t work and it has to be the selfish gene, you can’t romanticise it and turn it into a social thing.
Me: And now we’re back again to this idea of communities.
Him : And again the author being a scientist himself is quite careful. He suggests it may point in that direction and maybe a new theory would incorporate the new facts and take us back to ideas that were discredited before
Me: Tell me about that last chapter on homeopathy because that interests me
Him: On the one hand he’s saying it’s quite clearly ridiculous. Diluting things down until they are no longer in the water and then believing they are going to have some sort of effect is ludicrous. Any yet homeopathy stays around, you can get it on the NHS…
Me: Some people swear by it.
Him: But water is a strange liquid, one we don’t wholly understand. He’s turning over these scientific ideas to point out that really we know very little about liquids because they are not regular structures and we tend to use our knowledge by guessing that things are regular structures.
Me: And tell me how scientific is all this? What’s the style like? Could I understand it?
Him: Oh yes, it’s very clearly and engagingly written, partly because he’s very good at talking about the people who are caught up in these things. He’s just taking evidence and exploring it and poking holes in the weak spots. If you’re not a scientist you could be led to believe that science was a nice white smooth sheet and everything’s explained. But it’s not like that at all.
Me: Well, I find that reassuring as I don’t like the idea of science as an impregnable narrative as…. What?
Him: sorry (sniggering) it’s just I’m talking as if… as if… we’ve never talked like this before.
Me: What’s your problem?
Him: No, no, its just I’m still talking like I’m talking to the general public and then when you start talking properly I thought you were being too…sorry, it’s too strange.
Me: Are you all right? Hang on in there, it will all be over soon. So, how does it compare to other popular science books you’ve read?
Him: Very well. He links all the chapters together and it’s like he just leads you from one dilemma to the next one by having connecting thoughts, connecting ideas, it really leads you along and you don’t stop at the end of a chapter, you think, oh well I’ll just get onto the next one… You feel he has a real interest, understanding and affection for the scientists and I think that’s important because it’s not a debunking of science…
Me: No, he’s written it from the inside.
Him: I loved his opening anecdote in the introduction which is about three Nobel prize winners trying to get the lift to work and him saying he’d had similar problems the previous day and it had taken him a few moments to work out that the catch had to be properly shut before the lift would move… It’s that interesting thing of watching three supposedly incredibly intelligent people struggling to do the most mundane thing. Once you are part of the establishment it’s very hard to think outside of those constraints.
Me: That’ll do. Okay, happy with that?
Him: Are you happy with that?
End of recording.