13 things that don't make sense : the most baffling scientific mysteries of our time

by Michael Brooks

Hardcover, 2008




New York : Doubleday, c2008.


Based on Michael Brooks's popular article for New Scientist--one of the most forwarded articles in the magazine's online history--13 Things That Don't Make Sense tackles the most hotly debated topics in science today, from the placebo effect to life on Mars, and shows how these conundrums are changing the way scientists approach their work and why these issues will define science in the twenty-first century.

Media reviews

NBD / Biblion
De auteur, een Britse wetenschapsjournalist, probeert met dit boek een opsomming en uitleg te geven van dertien bijzondere wetenschappelijke mysteries die nog steeds niet volledig zijn opgelost. Onderwerpen zoals koude kernfusie, homeopathie, het heelal en ons leven passeren de revue. Aan de hand van diverse bestaande theorieën op het gebied van de (natuur)wetenschappen en verwijzingen naar grote geleerden uit de geschiedenis wordt aangetoond dat er nog geen eenduidige verklaringen zijn voor bepaalde experimenten en waarnemingen van de wereld om ons heen. Hebben wij mensen überhaupt wel een vrije wil? Wat is precies 'donkere energie'? En is er nu wel of geen overtuigend bewijs dat er 'ooit' leven was op Mars? Deze en vele andere vragen worden beantwoord in dit intrigerende boek. De auteur neemt de lezer mee in een bijzondere reis langs tot op heden onverklaarde raadsels van onze wereld. Hoewel het boek vol staat met specialistische termen, leest het prettig. Je raakt gefascineerd. Het is dan ook een aanrader voor lezers met belangstelling voor de natuurwetenschappen.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lyzadanger
Brooks' exploration of science's current condundrums is provocative and at times satisfyingly eerie, examining the deadlocks we've reached, and positing that maybe these stumpers mean that we're on the brink of a revolution. 13 of today's bafflers, from dark energy to the placebo effect, are explained.

Brooks starts out in one of my favorite realms to consider: cosmology, with the hint of quantum. These areas are wonderful playthings for the dilletante. I like to skip the math, education, logic and levelheadedness and go straight for the wacky and fun. And Brooks lets me do that, lets me revisit my favorite pop pet theories. The first few chapters are the most fun, covering those big, fun, universe-sized physics topics.

The later paradoxes in the books, the ones involving biology and chemistry, lack the luster of these first topics. Somehow the inexplicable success of homeopathy's quackery and a perplexing giant virus don't stand up to the hair-raising queerness of the Viking crafts' extra-solarsystem trajectory oddities, nor the notion that our fundamental constants may be inaccurate on cosmic scales or simply not constant at all. Shortly, it's clear that Brooks is a physicist, and that's where he shines.

A clear and entertaining read, unobtrusively constructed and well-researched.
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LibraryThing member passion4reading
Michael Brooks introduces thirteen scientific mysteries that have the experts baffled: there's the missing universe, two errant spacecrafts, varying physics constants, cold fusion, life on Earth, a possible signal from outer space, a giant virus, death, sex, free will, the placebo effect and homeopathy (yes, really!). I was glad to see that he didn't solely concentrate on cosmology, but offered an intriguing and interesting excursion through biology, medicine and psychology. Michael Brooks writes well, in a very engaging style that draws the reader in and invites them to think for themselves, to join in the discussion. The enthusiasm for his subject is obvious, and this is transferred to his readership. At times the science left me behind, but it is not always necessary to follow his dissemination of the present evidence to the letter, and the gist is enough to start a meaningful discussion. At times I felt the matter at hand was slightly oversimplified (the chapter on free will being the prime example), but on the whole he is content to let the contradictory scientific facts speak for themselves. I feel that with his chapter on homeopathy he was being deliberately controversial, but maybe it would have been wiser to choose a different scientific anomaly with which to end the book. What is certainly clear is that the scientists will still have their hands full for the foreseeable future, as there's still plenty of things left to be discovered. Highly entertaining and sure to provide material for silent reflection and lively debate during those long winter nights.… (more)
LibraryThing member JJPCIII
an interesting, stimulating and accessible book on scientific mysteries, easy to read and engage with, only flawed by a poor discussion and conceptualisation of free will, and what is meant by free will
LibraryThing member auntmarge64
Very readable and interesting intro to some of the issues challenging scientists today: dark energy and missing matter in the universe, the search for life on Mars and elsewhere, the value of placebos and homeopathy, the evolutionary reasons for death and sex, and the contradictions being found in our notions of free will, the definition of life, and our understanding of physics.… (more)
LibraryThing member stevetempo
A great book to wonder by. Michael Brooks does a great job in presenting the great scientific mysteries of our time. You will be surprised and be made to feel a bit uncomfortable with your understanding of reality. My favorite of the 13 things was the intelligent signal from space and section on free will.
LibraryThing member agdturner
Well written, thought provoking and educational. This asks more than it answers - like science generally. The first chapter is captivating and this probably will lead some readers to consider in depth unusual subjects that they might otherwise not. The choice of topics is well justified and together they broadly challenge how well we know things and how much (or little) we know. Perhaps one to look back on in 50 years to see how we're getting on.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
This book is a collection of essays about scientific anomalies which are currently puzzling the scientific community. I think Brooks is deliberately provocative in choosing these 13 and frequently criticizing scientists for their insularity and claims of unassailability. On other hand, someone needs to say these things.

Here are the 13 things with a short synopsis of each:

  1. The Missing Universe - the question of dark matter which makes up most of our universe but cannot be found.

  2. The Pioneer Anomaly - should satellites drifting off course make us reevaluate our understanding of gravity?

  3. Varying Constants - the only constant in physics is inconstancy.

  4. Cold Fusion - an experiment so thoroughly debunked its not even to be discussed, but is there some truth to it?

  5. Life - how did it begin?

  6. Viking - did the Mars probe find evidence of extraterrestrial life?

  7. The WOW! Signal - have intelligent extraterrestrial beings already tried to contact us?

  8. A Giant Virus - the Mimivirus challenges what we think we know about viruses and the definition of life.

  9. Death - what is the genetic and evolutionary purpose of aging and death?

  10. Sex - is there really any evolutionary advantage to sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction?

  11. Free will - does our brain decide things for us before we even have a chance to "think."

  12. The Placebo Effect - studies are inconclusive of whether placebos really work and what role they should play in medicine.

  13. Homeopathy - it's all a bunch of hooey yet no scientific study has thoroughly discredited it either.

An interesting book, highly recommended if you're interested in contemporary ideas in science.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
Michael Brooks looks at 13 scientific mysteries, ranging from physics and our universe to the placebo effect and whether or not we really have free will. An interesting book to set you thinking. No subject is treated in full depth, but there is a section on futher reading and a good index for the particular topics that have inspired you to delve further.… (more)
LibraryThing member ntr
This is a super cool book. The 13 things that he talks about are huge and affect us all on a more-or-less daily basis. I don't have a science background (I stopped studying it at 16) so in this instance am a total lay reader. That meant that I got lost in some of the more 'technical' parts (like all of theoretical physics...), but I reread the relevant section a couple of times and all was fine.

The 13 things are all themes that make you think, which is great, and after I had read the book I felt so terribly clever, which is even greater. I have also found that I have been dropping a lot of these things in to conversation and, quite frankly, impressing people. Quite the shock to tell people we have no tabs on 96% of the universe...

Thoroughly enjoyed this - highly recommend.
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LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
An interesting look at some topics that still need more investigation before answers can be found, if answers can ever be found. Things like Placebos, sex, death, and other things that still need a lot of poking before answers will be able to be glimpsed. Most chapters follow on from the previous chapter and I found the writing engaging.… (more)
LibraryThing member pauliharman
Intriguing introduction to several scientific mysteries. Well written, and flows reasonably well from one topic to the next.
LibraryThing member rrainer
Generally I enjoy this sort of book, and this was no exception, but I didn't find myself quite as engaged as I hoped to be. I think it was at its best when it didn't try to draw tenuous connections to popular culture and just told us what we needed to know. Some of the segments, particularly the one on Free Will, also seemed to have too narrow a focus when it came to the evidence; I kept thinking "what about this?" and "what about that?" but the broad areas I was bringing into it were never addressed.

Still, my main reason to read things like this, other than for their own sake because I like to know things, is to be inspired in my creative work, and this definitely succeeded on that front.
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LibraryThing member Jewsbury
The author presents a jazzy tale of thirteen scientific quandaries that deeply fascinate him. What is so intriguing about such questions is that we are not sure just how mysterious many of these issues really are. Inevitably the way we look at a problem decides how difficult it seems. Thus with the right insight many of these problems do disappear, others might be found to be trivial, yet some could be exceedingly illuminating.

Science, in its splendid variety, is the valiant but cautious challenger of the unknown. Yet did he convince me there is a world-shattering problem with gravity, post-Darwinian evolution, free will, etc? Well, actually no! Certainly he puts forward a good case. The book is well researched and paced. However, he would not claim that his accounts are balanced or complete. Yet they do expose the pulse of science with its persistent yearning to test our understandings.
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LibraryThing member fpagan
Disparate science topics of the sort covered in lots of other pop-sci books, described at a high-school level.
LibraryThing member paulmorriss
If you read science books you may be aware of some of the things that science has got a good handle on yet, like dark matter, yet you probably hadn't heard of all of these. Some are questions you would have thought wouldn't still be a mystery, like just what life is. Others, like the apparently successful cold fusion, I'd heard bits about, but never the full story.

The author has really done his homework and gone to visit the relevant people, and get a range of opinions on the topics. This is probably one of the best science books I've read, and a good reminder that we are far from understanding a lot of things.
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LibraryThing member DanStratton
In this book, Michael Brooks covers thirteen science cannot figure out... yet. These thirteen things are completely baffling to our current understanding: dark matter, dark energy, cold fusion, homeopathy, placebos, evidence of life on Mars and many others. When things get weird in science, science either digs in or denies everything. Brooks not only discusses the problems and possible solutions, but he shines the light on science and their tendency to dismiss anything outside the tight circle of understanding. The book stimulates one to think about these anomalies and to question some things we have been taught to believe.

A good example is cold fusion. In the early 1980s, Pons and Fleischman announced discovery of cold fusion and were subsequently professionally destroyed when others couldn't reproduce their experiments. Brooks reveals the continued research in this area and how it has been completely ignored by the press and scientific journals. Yet, several experiments have confirmed their research. Most of the research has been conducted by the military under code names so no one would realize the topic of study and point the finger of derision. There appears to be something to cold fusion, but science is a little to conservative to take a second look.

The book is interesting, but can get a little long winded and dry in spots. Brooks does a good job of explaining deep science to the lay reader, but some of the descriptions can get a little long. The material is interesting, but unapproachable for most of us. I understand the problem with dark matter in the universe, but have no context of what can be done about it. It is just a novelty for me. Most of the mysteries explained cannot be brought home as to why these problems should concern us beyond the trivial.
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LibraryThing member Razinha
Stick to physics. Homeopathy? Brooks at least ordered the mysteries from dark matter (if as yet, unexplainable) to, well, homeopathy. The continuum of possible to highly improbable is covered.

Not a waste, for Brooks explains his rationale well, but he will certainly fuel and maybe even satisfy the fringe fans (think R. A. Wilson).

I had a subscription to New Scientist (Brooks is the tie-in)several years ago but the issues were to frequent and I couldn't keep up. I wonder if they play with fringes now.
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LibraryThing member NLytle
This book is a collection of essays about some scientific mysteries, ranging from dark matter in astronomy to homeopathy in biology. As might be expected, some of the topics are discussed more thoroughly and aptly than other topics. For example, the essays on death, sexual reproduction, and placebos were much weaker (and his discussion unconvincing in portions of these discussions) than his essays on astronomy, homeopathy, and physics.

One of the book's strengths is that each area is presented as though it were a mystery with a concrete example; thus, he presents the mystery of the pioneer space probe's trajectory to talk about the physic's puzzle it represents.
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LibraryThing member MartinBodek
A fun and lively discussion of select items of scientific interest that have - as yet - escaped proper explanation. As with many books of this ilk, the reader can clearly see how the writer stared up at the cosmos as a child and wondered. I am numbered amongst that kind. What's interesting is that science wil eventually fill these gaps, and this book will be "12 things" then "9 things" until finally it will be obsolete. Enjoy the book before that happens.… (more)
LibraryThing member jimocracy
boring and pretentious
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
The chapter about the placebo effect is the one I was most interested in, that I read most carefully. ?That definitely left too much up in the air, and I hope to find more recent studies trying to figure out just how real that is. ?áAccording to the author, writing in 2008, ?áDrs still prescribe, and pharmacists fill, a *lot* of meds that are of such low dose that they might as well be a placebo. ?áCheck with your pharmacy - make sure you're not taking something trivial!

The 'free will' chapter is also intriguing, but I see other explanations for the experiments that 'proved' we don't have free will. ?áSure, we do a lot of things subconsciously, without full will. ?áFor example, while typing a review, I'll brush hair out of my eyes or scratch my nose without thinking about it. ?áBut I certainly can choose whether or not to get up and make a cup of tea, can I not? ?áAnd isn't that the level of free will that matters?

Most of the chapters are about either anomalies in physics, which I can't understand enough to get worked up about, and the big questions of life, death, and sex, which we're so far from a full understanding of that I'll be dust before the theories about them are developed enough to be relevant.

But this is clearly written, engaging, and not very old - I do recommend it if you're interested. ?á(Just don't put it on your 'to-read-someday' list because it will become old enough to be irrelevant sooner rather than later).
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LibraryThing member murderbydeath
I'm a big fan of NewScientist magazine, and was a faithful subscriber before moving to AU. So when I read about this book, 13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time, and that it's author was a NewScientist contributor, I quickly ordered it.

Almost all (if not all) of these mysteries are Weighty Stuff. The author does a pretty decent job of writing about them without overwhelming the everyday reader with too much terminology, but it leans a bit towards the dry in tone.

Brooks does a very, very good job of talking about these issues, their historical origins, the direction research is going with each; but he's not Bill Bryson - this isn't a chatty book about the coolness of science and it's mysteries. These chapters read like a very well researched article. Each is, in it's own way, controversial and some of them are hot button topics: cold fusion, free will, homeopathy. I personally found myself all het up about the free will chapter; I think he oversimplifies the idea of free will.

I'd suggest this book to anyone who bridges the gap between "I don't know anything about science, but it's cool!" and "I did my thesis work at MIT". It's chapters are intriguing, informative and thought provoking.
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LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
Spanning disciplines from biology to cosmology, chemistry to psychology to physics, Michael Brooks thrillingly captures the excitement of scientific discovery.Science’s best-kept secret is this: even today, thereare experimental results that the most brilliant scientists cannot explain. In the past, similar “anomalies” have revolutionized our world. If history is any precedent, we should look to today’s inexplicable results to forecast the future of science. Michael Brooks heads to the scientific frontier to confront thirteen modern-day anomalies and what they might reveal about tomorrow’s breakthroughs.… (more)
LibraryThing member eclecticdodo
A popular science book about, funnily enough, 13 things that scientists can't quite work out. It's a few years old now, so there may be new insights, but it is very interesting nonetheless. Matters covered range from physics, through chemistry, and medicine. It makes a fascinating counterpoint to the popular impression that science has removed the mystery from the universe.… (more)
LibraryThing member yeremenko
A well written look on the current state of science. This book tackles some of the big questions that baffle scientists in an accessible manner that does not dumb it down. Brooks is a better story teller than most science writers.

Though some have objected to the inclusion of homeopathy in the book, Brooks by no means endorses or even leans towards supporting homeopathy, but use that chapter to show how human attitudes, such as the extreme views of some homeopaths that treating water with music can cure diseases, to the other end that rejects even examining the biochemistry of some seemingly effective homeopathic substances. Brooks' main point is the view of homeopathy as magic has negated any possible scientific gains, and some of the fault is with the way science is practiced.… (more)



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