Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time

by Michael Brooks

Pub Date: Aug. 12th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-385-52068-3
Publisher: Doubleday

Brooks expands a New Scientist article on phenomena that challenge accepted theory.

He starts with one of the biggest: that 96 percent of the universe that can’t be detected. Dark matter and dark energy are attempts to explain why galaxies don’t disintegrate under their momentum, and why distant galaxies are moving away from each other faster than expected. As mathematical models, the two posited phenomena work fine. What nobody has yet explained is what sort of physical reality they represent. Are they just fudge factors? Or could the observations be wrong? Two space probes launched in the 1970s seem to defy Newton’s laws of gravity. Are the measurements inaccurate, or is some unseen force affecting them? Cold fusion set off a scientific furor when it was first announced in 1989, but was branded as pseudoscience when nobody could duplicate the experiments. Now a few people appear to have done so. Which is flawed: the experiments or the notion that cold fusion is bogus? Brooks provides cogent character sketches as he introduces the scientists involved in these investigations. He also effectively plays the gadfly, taking potshots at the scientific orthodoxy these phenomena call into question. Sometimes this seems overdone. Failure to account for the origins of life or death hardly seems a reason to question the validity of the scientific enterprise. On the other hand, there is considerable reason to question Viking’s failure in 1976 to detect signs of life on Mars. In fact, a Viking experiment that gave fairly clear signs of organic activity was written off as a “false positive,” apparently because it didn’t fit scientific preconceptions. There is also legitimate controversy about the two medical topics included: the placebo effect and homeopathy. While Brooks carefully avoids labeling anyone a crackpot or charlatan, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that some of his subjects are exactly that. Which ones? Well, every reader is likely to have a different idea.

Great fodder for arguments, written in a lively style.