As a science-graduate of 15 years ago, I like popular science books and the history of science. So I was quite looking forward to this read but was surprised at how hard it was to follow, disappointed by his choice of 13 and disliked his writing style:
Generally I get most scientific ideas when explained by good populist science writers. But I just didn't understand whole arguments presented in the book. This is not Michael Brooks fault - he is trying to cover 13 topics for which there are at least 2, and often more, complex explanations (so you have c. 30+ scientific theories to get through in 300 pages). This is a tough ask and I think a fundamental flaw with the idea of the book.
Were they the correct 13?
- Brooks missed out our non-understanding of what makes up a proton (e.g., are there more than 4 dimensions? How can 'particle spin' seem to transmit info faster than speed of light etc?) This seems to me to be as interesting as dark matter / energy and clearly not understood.
- He also decided to hide the origin of life (very interesting topic) under a chapter about what is the definition of life (not interesting). Defining terms isn't a scientific mystery. It can be hard (try defining comedy or art) but it's not as interesting. Or put it another way: I am about 100 times more interested in knowing how life came about than am I knowing how best to define whether something is alive or not.
- Two of the chapters are single anomolies (i.e., happened once and for which there is no other evidence). These are both mysteries, but not on the same level as, say death, it is
- I have not read all the homeopathy chapter yet but am puzzled at it's inclusion. He also refers to a lancet meta-data paper in 1997 that was a) written by the "Centre for Complementary Medicine Research and they have a vested interest and b) was not that conclusive (at least against no single illness, although pretty good against all evidence) and c) the analysis has been redone by the authors who now concede "it seems, therefore, likely that our meta-analysis at least overestimated the e'ects of homeopathic treatments." Brooks also has so far failed to mention the other major meta-analyses; all of which find no evidence for homeopathy working better than placebo.
- On reflection of the topics chosen, he seems to have amassed a lost of "these are things scientists hate talking about because they can't explain them" not "these are the most interesting problems science is grappling with"
Finally, I disliked the style. He jumps from a narrative style about the people involved to a person style (I then believed because...) Either approach is fine, but the swapping over mid-book from one to the other was jarring. That is not all. Brooks does a bad job of summarising the debate, e.g., in the placebo chapter he does not look at anyone else's meta-analyses apart from the one that causes contention and does not tell us whether there are other meta-analyses (there are). He also tries to sensationalise some arguments, for example, the significance that a few species still reproduce exclusively asexually. With over a million species there are bound to be some that have gone down this cul-de-sac, but Brooks tries to milk this fact for more than it is worth.
All in all a disappointment, but perhaps inevitably with such a impressive scope?