Out Out, Damn Blind Spot

Originally in: Globe and Mail

January 28, 2009

13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time, by Michael Brooks.

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The Roswell incident notwithstanding, cold fusion was the 20th century’s original “I want to believe” moment.

In a few short weeks in May, 1989, the two chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann rose, catapulted to world attention for a disastrous overstatement of an explosive claim – to have discovered a clean new form of renewable energy, “nuclear power without the drama” – to a swift fall and professional ruin at hands of scientific mandarins at MIT and Caltech.

But it wasn’t case closed, Michael Brooks argues, revealing new evidence about irregularities detected by those same dissenting authorities.

An ex-New Scientist senior editor, Brooks has compiled a spirited tour of various scientific and pseudoscientific theories, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time, that doubles as a sustained critique of scientific orthodoxy.

As it turns out, a careful look at discredited theories such as cold fusio n can tell us a lot about science’s own blind spots. There’s a pregnant connection here, the author implies in his book’s introduction, between what our best minds still don’t know and why the author finds himself at an astrophysics conference “watching three Nobel laureates struggle with the elevator.”

Scientific headway is a product of social consensus and subject to all the foibles of human nature. “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.”

13 Things is not unfriendly to science, and its author is no philistine or wing nut. By turns earnest and impartial, Brooks proves an advocate for most of the characters depicted in his book, detractors included.

Rather, he presents as an amiable and even-handed guide advancing historically overlooked arguments and experiment results, and his open mind rarely takes a back seat to healthy scientific skepticism. A range of topics comes in for reconsideration in this pocket intellectual history of the scientific impasse: from the revelation that “we can only account for 4 per cent of the cosmos” to the discovery of life on Mars; from a potential extraterrestrial message received in the 1970s to the latest vicissitudes of our search to understand the foundations of life, death, sex and free will. Even homeopathy staggers in from the pseudoscientific cold, however briefly.

With time, 13 Things could prove to be a sober and important reclamation of several scientific reputations. For the moment, it deals an eloquent blow to those who feel, as John Horgan argued in his 1997 book, The End of Science, that the greatest efforts of science are behind it and that a unified theory of everything is near at hand. “Just as light travels with a finite speed as it moves across the cosmos,” the author concludes, “science progresses with more impediment than you might ever have thought.”

Answers to these scientific stumpers are – or are not, depending on your faith – forthcoming. The question more interesting and pressing at our moment than the mysteries of our physical universe, and the one Brooks is well equipped to answer, is how we get stuck in the first place.

More than compiling a beguiling shortlist of science’s biggest hobgoblins, Brooks presses an emphatic case for heeding the ways we’re repeatedly getting things wrong. What sets apart Brooks’s narrative as an accounting of the progress of science at our historical moment is his emphasis on seeing the personalities behind the problems. Part of this is journalistic craft, but taken as a gallery of curious souls, operating oftentimes at the fringes of respectable science and afield from its ivory towers, who’ve suffered for their work, it’s also a gripping argument for what continues to hold back scientists risking reputation on these critical, if almost mystical, problems.

The ulterior message here is that it’s high time to practise restraint in rushes to judgment; time, rather, to interrogate and improve upon our methods of evaluation.

His chapters, knit together like a devious map of mystery and misunderstanding, are a bravura account of the deleterious effect of the vicissitudes of reputation and status envy on the scientific profession. The book is fairly littered with the corpses of researchers practising in the wrong field at the wrong time. It is an unflattering snapshot of professional mendacity, but 13 Things also brightly advances a brief on the value of that oldest of intellectual virtues: critical thought.

The great revelation of this book for readers like myself, who survey science from outside the community walls, is that – far from the culture war on science to which we’ve become accustomed in the United States – assaults on scientific progress come from within, too. No different than any institution, science is prone to its own gate-keeping impulse and to the enduring folly of human nature.

Happily, 13 Things never becomes a genuine screed. Between the deep subjects at hand and the great gumption of daring theories, there is too much wonder at hand to stay bellicose over the vanity fair of scientific reputation, which is ultimately a sideshow to the problems uniting – in inquiry, at least – the broader community, professionals and amateurs alike.

Wonder, not repute, is the currency that should be held sacrosanct in science. It is ultimately only those things that resist our reason, elude our grasp, tempt us to embroider upon on the fringe of what’s understood – in other words, that jarring introduction of a false note to the pleasing symmetry everyone before us surmised with canonical science – that is the species of thinking, and thinkers, that Brooks wisely moves us to reconsider.

Jeffrey MacIntyre (jeffmacintyre.com), based in New York, is a widely published Canadian journalist. He writes on science and technology for Globe Books.

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