13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

Saturday, April 11, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Books, Reviews, Science

I love books that make me think. I love books that say something controversial. I love books where I can listen to the arguments that someone else puts forward, and then decide whether or not I agree with them.

13 Things That Don't Make Sense (Amazon)

Michael Brooks’ book 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time fits nicely into each of these categories. It takes a look at things which are scientifically controversial — or unexplained anomalies with current theories — and looks at what has been proposed for them.

Now, as I’ve said, these for the most part go against the current scientific consensus, so you shouldn’t assume them to be correct. But equally, nor should you assume them to be wrong — further, well-designed scientific studies would be appropriate in most of these cases, along with an open mind…

What does the book actually look at?

  1. Dark Matter / Dark Energy — and whether alternative explanations of gravity might render it unnecessary
  2. Looking at the Pioneer spacecraft, and trying to work out why they are not following the laws of physics
  3. Why some of the universal constants may not be universal, or constant
  4. Cold fusion — not quite going away, as there seems to be something going on
  5. Is life more than just a bag of chemicals?
  6. The suppressed evidence for life on mars
  7. SETI and the Wow! signal
  8. The giant virus from Bradford that might rewrite the history of life
  9. The problem with death
  10. …and with sex
  11. The free will illusion
  12. The placebo effect
  13. Homeopathy

Now each of the topics can be sufficiently controversial in itself to require a little looking at: it’s not really fair to sum them up with a line or two each. They need a little more detail, a little more background, and I need to compare them to what I can personally verify before I start taking Michael’s word for it. But, irrespective of whether or not you believe any of the theories that Michael puts forward (and, as they aren’t his theories, he doesn’t necessarily believe all of them either), he certainly presents the information well.

One of the key things for a ‘popular science’ book is clarity. This book fulfils that criterion admirably; the current scientific consensus, the anomalies and the alternative theories are all described well, and without requiring specific knowledge of that domain, but without any obvious ‘dumbing down’. The people involved in particular theories are also described to help complete the picture.

While each of the chapters has its own merits — by my reckoning I could now happily argue the toss over any of these theories with my mates in the pub (and indeed will probably do so at some point) I felt that the review would benefit more from taking two or three and looking at them in a little more detail — including a little, limited research of my own to see what I can find out.

[After actually starting this, I quickly realised two would be more than sufficient, otherwise it would end up taking me longer to write this review than to have read the book in the first place.]

Varying Constants

The general consensus is that universal constants are universal and constant. Brooks takes us through the theories of physicist John Webb, who believes that the fine structure constant (also known as alpha α) has changed with time. This is a coupling constant which characterises the strength of electromagnetic interaction, and it is approximately 1/137.

However, Webb’s work with the light emitted by quasars 12 billion years ago shows up the fine structure constant as being slightly different. Not massively different, only different by about one millionth of its value. Obviously, your first assumption would be that someone has not done a calculation right, as constants are, well, pretty much believed to be constant — anything else is saying that the physics of the universe can change over time.

His research team have dissected every result, carried out ruthless and rigorous scientific analyses, checked everything for some casual error. They have found nothing wrong. In fact, their analyses have taken them to the varying alpha result has much more credibility than is generally required in any other area of physics. You don’t even need Webb’s level of certainty to claim a Nobel Prize for the discovery of an entirely new particle.

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

I discovered that not everyone agrees: Chand et al (PDF) carried out a similar experiment and found that a mean variation around zero, and well within allowances for calibration accuracy — although this work has itself been criticised for perceived analytical flaws.

Brooks suggests that work on the natural nuclear fission reactor (yes, really!) found at Oklo in Gabon shows that 2 billion years ago, the fine structure constant was again different — at this point slightly higher, by about 45 parts per billion. Again, I’ve checked out this research (PDF) myself, and that certainly seems to be what is being said.

We are therefore left with the knowledge that certainly some of the universal constants aren’t actually constant at all. That the laws of physics aren’t immutable. That’s pretty earthshaking stuff… but there is strong measured evidence that shows this to be the case.

Noteworthy. Controversial. Interesting. And that’s only a brief look at part of the arguments of one of the chapters.

The Viking Effect — Life On Mars

It is widely believed — save for fans of War of the Worlds — that there isn’t life on mars. And yet according to Brooks, the very first experiments on mars showed otherwise.

The metabolism of microorganisms means that they will release gas derived from whatever they have been feeding on. If they’ve been feeding on radioactive carbon, a Geiger counter above the gas should go crazy. The plan was simple: add radioactive nutrients to a soil sample containing microbes, and watch for a rising graph from the radiation detector. Then, if it works, heat the soil sample to 160 degrees Celsius, killing the microbes and repeat. You can add all the radioactive nutrients you like, but you won’t get radioactive gas. It worked for finding microbes in suspect water, and it worked when tested on Earth, using California soil. And then it worked on Mars.

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

There were four tests used to check for microbial presence on Mars. These were called labelled release (the one above, positive results), pyrolitic release (positive results) and gas exchange (negative results), and the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (negative results).

Unfortunately, one of the ovens required for the GCMS tests broke in transit. The instruments on a second were known to have failed. So the final oven was used — and without any confirmation that the sample had been delivered into it — the fact that this produced a negative result was seen as confirmation there was no life on mars.

The next lander, Brooks says, actually managed to register that soil samples had been placed in the ovens, but again no organic material was found. The suggestion was instead proposed that hydrogen peroxide found on the surface of Mars was breaking down Levin’s nutrients used in the labelled release experiment.

There are only two problems with this assumption: firstly, that hydrogen peroxide has never been found on Mars, despite five specific attempts to locate it, and it is stable even above 160 Celsius, so if it had broken down the nutrients in the first test, it ought to have broken them down again even after heating.

Secondly, it would appear that the GCMS test wasn’t sensitive enough.

Levin [who designed labelled release] and Lafleur [who worked on GCMS] published a paper together in 2000, exposing for the first time some of the preflight results of the GCMS experiment. It had repeatedly failed to find organic compounds that were present in samples. Antarctic soils contained ten thousand organisms per gram of soil, but even at concentrations of 3 billion organisms per gram, the GCMS would have failed to spot organic compounds.

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

The abstract of this is available online, so you can easily check it out for yourself. By this time, Brooks points out, this wasn’t actually as controversial as it might have seemed, because martian meteorite ALH84001 seemed to provide evidence of microbrial life (again, this is not conclusive, nor uncontested!)

There was also a suggestion that the labelled release gas experiment behaved as if whatever was causing the gas release in the soil followed a circadian rhythm — again more suggestive of something associated with life rather than inorganic chemicals…

Current analyses show, at steady state, these fluctuations exhibit a periodicity of 24.66+/- 0.27 hr, statistically indistinguishable from the Martian solar period [...] Recent observations of circadian rhythmicity in microorganisms and entrainment of terrestrial circadian rhythms by low amplitude temperature cycles argue that a Martian circadian rhythm in the LR experiment may constitute a biosignature.

Joseph D. Miller et al.: Periodic analysis of the Viking Lander Labeled Release experiment (Abstract)

Again — noteworthy, controversial, interesting. And there are 11 more stories like this, all of which are demanding that someone take a proper look at them, that they are subjected to a bit more scientific scrutiny (and neither simply dismissed as not fitting a particular world view nor accepting because that’s what people want to believe).

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time was certainly worth my time and my money.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

1 Comment to 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

  1. garment news daily says:

    July 28th, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    You should check this out…

    [...] Wonderful story, reckoned we could combine a few unrelated data, nevertheless really worth taking a look, whoa did one learn about Mid East has got more problerms as well [...]……

Leave a comment