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4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 3 July 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed about half of this book. The early chapters on physics & astronomy discuss some difficult concepts in a very approachable way, and the chapters on evolution are also very good. There is some really excellent popular science writing in these pages. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably in a book of this type, there are a few low points as well...

To be credible as a book about "scientific mysteries", the unifying themes should still have been the need for extraordinary evidence to support extraordinary claims, and the scientific method. This is, after all, a book with the word "scientific" on the cover. The tone of the writing in places is credulous where it should have been questioning.

But the real show stopper for me was the chapter on homeopathy. I strongly suspect that this was deliberately put at the end of the book. I (and many other readers, I suspect) would have stopped reading at that point if it had been any earlier. The last line of the preceding chapter serves as a warning to what follows: an examination of "science's least favorite anomaly". How something for which there is no credible scientific evidence *at all* qualifies as a scientific anomaly is quite beyond me. The studies and "evidence" discussed in this chapter are (without exception) discredited, or flawed, or small, or unrepeated, or statistically inadequate, or all of these. The unquestioning and naive tone of this chapter discredits the entire book, which is a great shame. To paraphrase the chapter title, homeopathy is patently absurd - and it won't go away because (i) people want to believe, (ii) it's a multi-billion dollar industry, and (iii) authors like Michael Brooks (who should know better) like to report the views of people with weird ideas - in the interests of being controversial.

I was left with a single example of homeopathy having a real effect: it unfortunately ruined this book. If only Michael Brooks had limited himself to writing about 12 Things That Don't Make Sense, I would have given this 4 stars.
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on 7 August 2011
An interesting and thought provoking book. Even the chapters on subjects that I had some prior knowledge of contained new perspectives and insights.

Unfortunately, the Kindle edition, at least, is let down by being littered with scanning/OCR errors ranging from spaces and hyphens erroneously appearing in the middle of words, through errors such as "woodness" in place of "goodness", right up to "A gram of carbon, for instance, contains 5 x 1022 atoms" which should, presumably, have been "5 x 10^22 atoms". Several paragraphs required reading through a couple of times to decode the author's actual meaning, which was something of a let down.
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on 11 March 2011
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?
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on 28 October 2013
What I liked about this book is it's wide-ranging scope, from cosmology to the origins of life to the problem of free will, it had all the makings of a lovely intellectual journey, but in a few places the author commits some serious mistakes of reasoning. The chapter on sexual reproduction has a few of those, but the worst offending bits, already remarked on by other reviewers, are in the last chapter - on homeopathy - where Michael Brooks really looses the plot. In his defense of homeopathy he writes, for example, that there are 1000s of homeopathic recipes, and if only scientists went to the trouble of testing each and every one of them, surely they might find at least one or two that produce a statistically significant effect. Now, if a school kid thinks that this is a good argument in defense of homeopathy then they might be forgiven, but someone with a science PhD really should know better! If you have to do 1000s of tests and hope that one or two may come out as a (false?) positive then your theory is as good as dead before you even start. Much of the argument against homeopathy stems from the simple fact that, unlike aspirin or the polio vaccine, it has failed to produce robust, reproducible results in the majority of cases. And the whole scientific edifice rests on the fact that the burden of providing ample and convincing proof is on the proponents of a theory, not on the skeptics. I may want to believe in fairies, but the fact that you cannot conclusively disprove the existence of fairies does not turn fairy-ology into a scientific theory worthy of consideration.

Dear Michael, I would have liked to be able to recommend your book, 90% of it are interesting and enjoyable, but the remaining 10% are terrible. Consider asking the publisher whether you can write a second edition (and get someone to proof it who understands medical statistics as you clearly have a blind spot there).
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on 18 September 2012
Others have already pointed out that the OCR (kindlification) of the book could use some improvement and I agree.

I got this for 99p in the kindle sale and I am glad I didn't pay full price for it because this book was phenomenally disappointing. It sells itself as an exploration of 13 scientific oddities or mysteries but this is probably one of the least scientific books I have ever read. At its worst, it discusses homeopathy.

I found the style of writing quite irritating as well, and many of the arguments didn't flow through logically or weren't presented in a way that was correct. The basic recipe for the book was a large number of ill-educated people who want to think they understand science, along with an extra helping of melodrama and false suspense, and a touch of showmanship. For me it was the literary equivalent of someone on a high-end digital television channel trying to convince me that ghosts are real and that they're about to contact one live for my viewing pleasure. The book actually is, in short, as invalid and silly as some of the things it claims to explore and investigate in a scientific way.
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on 25 September 2011
When it comes to popular science writing, homeopathy is a shibboleth. I therefore flicked straight to that chapter and these words jumped out at me:

"...they too had failed to prove homeopathy's inefficacy. Yet again. This all seems implausible. Given more than two centuries, science has failed to show that homeopathy is bunkum." [p194].

You'd think that a "PhD in quantum physics" would at least give one some grasp of the scientific method, including where the burden of proof lies and the 'argument from ignorance' fallacy. This chapter gives no evidence of this (though maybe it's confirmation bias on my part). This is such a fundamental flaw (cognitive or editorial, it matters not) that I have no reason to read the rest of the book or, indeed, any of his other stuff.

N.B. This review would have been longer and more detailed, but at least one an earlier reviewer noted the same thing.
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on 8 November 2008
We live in a time where scientists might be especially defensive. A significant proportion of teachers think creationism should be taught in schools and scientifically illiterate Daily Mail journalist are prepared to pronounce on the supposed unlikeliness of global warming . So a book which emphasises what is anomalous or inexplicable in our current level of scientific understanding needs to be rather carefully balanced and pragmatic to a thought provoking read. Michael Brooks achieves this even when dealing with topics such as Homeopathy with which chemists like myself are usually particularly irritated .The Chapters on Cold Fusion ,the evidence that NASA found for life on Mars and possible extraterestrial signals I found particularly interesting. A very worthwhile read.

Sam Langridge
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on 1 January 2016
Most of the book is highly enjoyable especially for those who have either an amateur or professional love for science. Space fans also get a good dose of mystery that make it a captivating read. My only criticism is the author sometimes assumes the currently fashionable belief rather than conclude in an objective and entirely scientific way e.g. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER: too much emphasis on dark matter/energy as a reality whereas it is just a theory, similar to phlogiston theory at its time. Not enough counter theories presented for dark matter/energy.
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on 1 February 2013
This book represents an admirable effort to make sense of some things that "don't make sense". My view is that Mr Brooks treads,not one,but two fine lines with impressive equilibrium.
First,he neither blinds with science nor patronises; secondly,he manages to be as open-minded as it is possible to be without seeming downright credulous. This,of course,is my opinion as an extremely interested,but lay,reader. I am aware that others have applied more exacting standards of judgment,but perhaps they should bear in mind that "13 Things" is not a text book in the traditional sense.

Douglas Wood
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on 7 December 2011
By the half way point I was wondering whether the clever way that one chapter led to the next might be limiting this books ability to genuinely wow the reader. The topics are interesting and he makes the subjects understandable, he also has a knack for scientific biography and explaining the methods, which is just as well as this book is about scientific investigation rather than result. The subject matter seems to be roughly divided between the cosmos and the living and I can't believe that there aren't some more intriguing mysteries of science out there, instead I felt that we were treated to yet more of the same.

Good but not great and you won't have missed much if you skip it because the 13 topics are mysteries and therefore the book has no conclusions.
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