Tuesday, October 7, 2008

How to Annoy Your Science Teacher

Scientists can be so smug. Maybe they have reason to be. After all, their methods, observations and theories are responsible for the vast knowledge we twenty-first century humans have about the universe and ourselves. Still, nobody likes smugness, even if it's justified. And when that smugness rubs off on your science teacher, or worse yet, those lab partners at the next station over whose experiments always seem to produce the perfect data, the smugness gets downright intolerable.

Michael Brooks's, 13 Things That Don't Make Sense might wipe a little of it away. Taken as a whole, the book presents a world where scientists are sometimes simply baffled, scratching their heads like sophomore chemistry students who can't get their hydrolysis experiment to behave. Sometimes the scientists just cheat, hiding or changing data so as not to look incompetent, or in agreement with people disgraced as hacks. And sometimes they just muddle along, as when they perform experiments on and form vast hypotheses on something they haven't yet even bothered to define, such as "life." But most importantly, Brooks describes a scientific world which generally is doing exactly what it is supposed to, uncovering big scary questions, the answers to which could radically alter our understanding of everything we thought we knew. His thesis is that, in these thirteen areas at least, science is may be confused because it stands on the brink of a massive paradigm shift not unlike those ushered in by Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein.

Brooks has a number of purposes in exploring the anomalies that baffle science. For one, he wants show just how limited our knowledge is, but he also wants to explore the steps scientists take to free themselves from difficult quandaries. On a more practical level, he demonstrates the limits of science's techniques and the flaws of the people who practice them, but he also suggests how tenaciously scientists' struggle to live up to their tasks. Finally, and most importantly he wants to show that science, far from being in a stable state, a place to turn to for absolute answers, is always, and especially at this moment in time, actually an institution ripe for revolution, and more productive at generating questions than answers. He looks at the placebo effect, both in its power to heal and in its potential to mess up double-blind testing of new drugs, questioning medicine's faith in these tests. He sees sex as a mystery, not in how it's done, but in how pervasive it is, when, according to evolutionary theory, it really shouldn't be. He looks at death (or, really, aging that results in death) and why it should exist, since in some species, such as the Blanding Turtle, it doesn't, challenging scientists to find a way around aging in humans. He examines an individual signal from outer space, the WOW! signal, which matches exactly what we predict an alien species looking to make contact might send, scolding the American government to cutting funding to SETI research. And he explores the history of cold fusion and homeopathy, each of which work experimentally at least some of the time even though they fit no known theoretical framework and are generally thought of as territory for crackpots.

In two instances he even treads on ground generally reserved for philosophy, trying to find a definition for "life" (there isn't a perfect one) and exploring the "illusion" of free will (experiments show that our minds actually attach purpose to our actions after the fact). Even here he maintains firm footing on what observation and experimentation can tell us, disappointing armchair philosophers like myself by avoiding rabbit hole discussions of metaphysics.

Brooks opens his book with a discussion of dark matter, perhaps the most troubling enigma of our time. "We can only account for 4% of the universe," he claims. Scientists can measure the amount of stuff in the universe, or in a section of it, like a galaxy, in two ways. One is to measure how much light it radiates or reflects (light, to these scientists includes the whole spectrum, from infrared to visible light to x-rays and gamma rays). Most matter that we know of ought to either reflect or radiate light. The other way is to measure how gravity effects the matter. Gravity will act very differently on a galaxy with more mass than one with less. When scientists compare these two measures, they're not even close. The mass measurement says there are many times more matter in the universe than the measurement based on light. Scientists are at a loss to account for this difference. Either they don't understand matter like they thought they did (lots of stuff must not reflect or radiate light) or they don't understand gravity the way they thought they did. Or both.

Brooks is at his best in the dark matter discussion, lucidly explicating both the science and the culture of the scientist. He follows several of the paths down which scientists have hopefully and fruitlessly trod--the search for WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles); a modified understanding of gravity labeled MOND; the multi-dimensional mathematics of super-string theory; the further compounding introduction of dark matter's sister, dark energy--in attempts to solve this gargantuan puzzle. All of these theories show promise, none has yielded anything like an answer. But something, sooner or later, has to give. When (or if) the question of dark matter is finally answered, our understanding of the physical universe will radically change.

13 Things That Don't Make Sense stands apart from other popular science books in that it addresses the culture of theoretical and experimental science, shooting holes in science's too-good opinion of itself, even as it elucidates science's accomplishments and discoveries. As such it is more than a primer. Imagine the power this book will give you in class. The opportunity, for instance, to derail a physics lecture on gravity with a suggestion that, according to the Pioneer probe trajectories, gravity is all wrong once you leave our solar system, or the chance to protest a biology test based on the fact that we don't even know what life is. Depending on your teacher's disposition, you'll either impress her or annoy her. Either way, you win.

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