New Statesman columnist Brooks (Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, 2012, etc.) details research being conducted on the extreme frontiers of science.
“Science has been successful for the most part in explaining why things are as they are,” writes the author in this absorbing piece of reportage. “But in the process they have also discovered the broad horizon of their ignorance.” It is encouraging to hear that scientists continue to push the envelope of inquiry in realms that require vast background knowledge to even frame the questions that are subsequently turned on their heads. Ignorance is an invitation, Brooks suggests, or as the physicist Richard Feynman once said: “Everything we know is only some kind of approximation. Therefore, things must be learned only to be unlearned again or, more likely, to be corrected.” Brooks accessibly examines his chosen 11 skirmishes with exploratory “corrections,” and he opens with a doozy: the origins and workings of human consciousness. Does it sit atop our sensory perceptions? Is awareness an illusion with no overarching narrative? Brooks proceeds to outline a theory of seeing, with all its herky-jerky gaps, that makes consciousness appear a survival tool straight out of Darwin. He provides a scintillating chapter on animal personalities that segues into animal-to-human organ transplants. He also explores epigenetics, forecasting the development of an embryo via the environment “in which [the] genes’ chemical properties are operating,” and he rolls out the experiments and studies that have been conducted to give the lie to the Big Bang theory, to promote examples of mind over body, or to demonstrate our ability to disconnect from time, with the aid of psilocybin. He ends with the great humbling statement: The more we learn, the more insignificant humans become, knocked off our perch of self-regard by, for instance, “godlike” subatomic particles.
The edgy edge of scientific investigation presented with verve.