Book Review: 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, by Michael Brooks

I’m a sucker for scientific topics way out on the fringe — those cool stories that are neither boringly mainstream nor solely the domain of the tinfoil-hatted. Stories that have an equal shot of becoming the next Stem Cell Research (i.e. so gigantic that I’ll soon be sick of them), or the next Martian microbes (i.e. fizzles out). I love to write about ’em myself here on, and I love to read ’em in book like this one, “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense”, by Michael Brooks.

This book covers thirteen cutting-edge topics that straddle the line between “big breakthrough” and “wait, that isn’t real”,  ranging from fascinating stories that are shamefully under-reported (such as the “Wow!” signal, a possible one-time SETI detection that was disappointingly never confirmed) to been-there-done-that-rolled-eyes-at-it pseudo-science (such as the possible chemical basis of homeopathy and structured water).  I cringe a bit at the serious attention paid to a couple of these topics, such as cold fusion or homeopathy, which I’d bet serious money don’t turn out to be real.  But I understand this comes with the territory — while some of these topics aren’t likely worth the serious writeup they get in this book, others wholeheartedly deserve more attention.  Overall Brooks’ tone is decently impartial — even when I disagree with his suggestion to pay more attention to the possibility of “structured water”, I kept reading because he earned my attention with credible and reasonably skeptical reporting about each topic. He generally gives a good overview about why each strange solution to a given problem is worthy of our attention without overselling the scientific claims.

Rather than going through all 13 Un-make-sense-able ideas, I’ll touch on a couple of my favorites here:

The Pioneer Anomaly

For a while, astronomers have been monitoring the Pioneer satellites as they head out of the solar system, and have noticed they seem to be moving oddly compared to what our calculations would expect.  After working out all the math, the geeks determined both spacecraft were slowing down more than we’d expect, as if being pulled by an unknown force.  After apparently ruling out all other sources of experimental error, physicists began to consider whether the satellites were really experiencing some novel as-yet-undiscovered force — could our theories of gravity be incorrect?  It seems preposterous to suggest overthrowing our well-tested theories just because of some strange data, but on the other hand we had never sent a man-made object that far away from planet Earth before.  Could it be there was some subtle gravitational effect we hadn’t discovered yet?  It was puzzling enough to include in a list of the 13 most puzzling unsolved questions in science — as topic # 2 in this book, to be precise.

Unfortunately for this book’s author, the Pioneer Anomaly has apparently been solved, so knock one of the thirteen off the list.  Turns out it was due to the spacecraft’s uneven emission of heat — they emit slightly more on one side, which is enough to (over time) deflect the trajectory from what we’d calculate from first principles. It’s actually a shame, and its not just anomaly-chasers like me or Michael Brooks that feel the disappointment. Even mainstream scientists would have liked to stumble across a new discovery, especially in a well-trodden area like celestial mechanics.  Unfortunately for us, anomalies like this usually fade away under the harsh light of rigorous experimental process. I can count a handful of times a science blurb appeared saying something like “Scientists Discover Fifth Fundamental Force”, only to never see anything mentioned about it ever again.

Free Will

What would you say if I told you that despite what you may think, you don’t actually have free will?  That even though you feel in complete control of your own actions, your consciousness is merely along for the ride — you feel as though you’re in executive control, but your consciousness is only a figurehead with the illusion of free will.  What would you say?  I knew you’d say that — after all, you don’t have free will.  Topic # 11 in this book discusses a fascinating area of neuroscience research dealing with free will, by measuring electrical activity in the brain while subjects do various tasks purely of their own volition (or so they think).

Here’s the deal — there’s a particular electrical signal in your brain (called the readiness potential, or Bereitschaftspotential ) that slowly builds in intensity leading up to an intentional movement. Thinking about getting up off the couch? Your readiness potential signal is building up in anticipation, right up to the moment that some of your motor neurons fire to get your butt up off the couch. It is theorized that it represents just what it sounds like — your brain getting ready to do something. Specifically, it seems to be kind of an ambient signal of activity in the motor cortex as it plans out your upcoming movement. Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet was doing some experiments measuring this electrical signal in human volunteers, and found something surprising — the readiness potential was already well on its way before the subject decided to do something.

You’d think that if your conscious alert thinking part of your brain were in charge, the order of events would go like this: 1) decide to pick nose, 2) readiness potential starts growing, 3) motor neurons for the index finger start firing, and 4) nose picking commences. Instead, Libet found that the readiness potential launched its countdown before the person consciously made the decision to nose-pick — so something deep in the unconscious brain was actually making the call to commence nose-picking, and the conscious brain was not actively involved. The implication? Even though you think you’re in control, you ain’t! You think you just decided to move your finger, but somehow your motor cortex knew about the upcoming movement before you “decided” to move.

So this is a pretty remarkable finding in neuroscience, and has of course spawned great debate about the nature of free will. Some have even decided that free will simply doesn’t exist, and the illusion that our consciousness is in control is merely another of many strategies our genes have evolved to survive. That’s a pretty heavy conclusion to put on one experimental result, and I for one am skeptical about the ability to measure the timing precisely enough. Libet claimed the readiness potential was ahead by about a third of a second — but how do you get someone to tell you when they decided something, to sub-second accuracy? Particularly when the act of telling you is itself another voluntary movement, the very thing you’re trying to time.  I’m not the first to raise this objection though — Brooks cites experimental tests that supposedly showed that delays in the volunteer announcing their decision time can account for part but not all of the 0.3 second gap.  Still, I’m not ready to declare that free will is dead until more experimental work confirms this effect.  If true, though, it means our unconscious brain is much more in the driver’s seat than we think.

Gettin’ It On

Wouldn’t things be easier if we could just reproduce asexually, say by budding off a mini-me from an elbow or something?  Amirite fellas?  *hand slap*  Quite a lot of effort & energy go into sexual reproduction — is it really worth the bother, evolutionarily speaking?  We hear in introductory biology class that sexual reproduction helps “mix up” the gene pool, putting together novel combinations of genes that might have a selective advantage out in the Big Bad World.  Topic numero ten in Brooks’ book has to do with the mystery of sexual reproduction — apparently the case for its evolutionary superiority is not as clear-cut as we hear in high school biology class.  Supposedly some experimental and simulation work suggest that asexual reproduction might out-compete sexual reproduction in some situations.  However, we all know (don’t we?) that evolution can be a capricious thing — not all strategies chosen by evolution have to be universally optimal (though many are), they merely have to be “locally” optimal (i.e. more optimal than the other strategies they evolved from and/or compete with).  Furthermore it may be too hard to switch horses midstream from one strategy to another — too much machinery would have to be junked for humans to evolve our way over to asexual reproduction.

Brooks’ section on sexual reproduction incidentally contained what is my new favorite little chestnut to use in casual conversation — he mentions what is by far my favorite term for a scientific concept.  The Red Deer, like other hooved mammals, uses head-to-head combat among alpha males to compete for breeding rights with the females.  But often while two alpha males are engaged in an antler-to-antler duel, shouting “come at me, bro!”, the beta males will sneak off to mate with the females.  Bypassing the dangerous and (from an energy perspective) expensive activity of fighting for breeding status, these lower-status males nevertheless do quite well, often out-competing alpha males in spreading their genes.  John Maynard Smith observed this phenomenon in nature, and so got naming rights.  And he didn’t disappoint — he called these beta males “Sneaky F*ckers”.  Outstanding! This is an actual honest-to-goodness scientific term, mind you, not a nickname used in the bar after the conference is over.  Smith has created a bit of scientific jargon that forces stuffy evolutionary biologists to unleash an F-Bomb when they want to talk about his theory.  Well done, JMS, well done…  You sneaky f*cker!

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