13 Things

Michael Brooks. 13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Times. Profile Books. 2009.

People in the Fortean field often talk about 'anomalies', and link the topics they are discussing with the notion of the scientific anomalies that lead to paradigm change, a theme championed by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn. It is these possible paradigm challenging anomalies which are the subject of the discussions in this book.

The first thing to note is that your classic Fortean 'anomalies' are absent, and topics with a Fortean tinge make up a minority of the cases studied. Most of these anomalies lie in technical scientific fields, the questions of whether there really is missing mass and dark energy in the universe, whether the constants of nature are very very slightly inconstant, just that little too fickle for the puritanical soul of Isaac Newton, is there some anomaly in gravity which is taking the Pioneer off course. There are biological enigmas such as the evolutionary origins of death and sex which most non-specialists wouldn't even recognise as anomalies. Some are based on definitions, just what is life, and why is not possible to come up with some agreed definition. Are virus's living or not? It used to be argued they aren't. but genetic studies of a recently discovered giant virus are challenging that. Perhaps these various anomalies tie up together, all the big physics ones, and all the big biological ones are facets of larger anomalies or new outlooks in their respective fields.

There are some more Fortean anomalies, there are the questions which once looked settled but aren't perhaps. Maybe life was detected on Mars, maybe, after all there just could be something in cold fusion, just what was that mysterious 'wow' signal. There are more psychological mysteries, the real role of placebos for example, or the vexed question as to whether we have free will, what ever might be meant by that phrase.

Last of all is the question of whether there is anything in homeopathy, and its only in this and the cold fusion chapters that we really come close to the edges of the scientifically acceptable, and only in the case of homeopathy do we go over the edge. That last case actually made quite a contrast with many of the others in this book. What, for want of the better word, one might call the mainstream anomalies whether in physics or biology, do seem to be acting as true Kuhnian anomalies, sparking often fierce debate, and new sets of experiments and theories, at the outer edges there is much less.

Actually there is something else there which Brooks briefly notes in passing but doesn't quite grasp the significance of, but we have several times, a kind of attraction to the farthest edge, a continual escalation of claims to the point of self parody and often self destruction, Thus in a homeopathy laboratory, Brooks finds among the the other ingredients, the bottled and presumably exponentially distilled essence of crop circle. It is, I suspect, this lack of boundaries which really separates pesudoscience from 'genuine' anomalistic science. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia Blog

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