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Thursday, February 4, 2010

13 Things That Don't Make Sense

13 Things That Don't Make Sense
13 Things That Don't Make Sense

by Michael Brooks

Highlighting just 13 of the possibly many anomalies that are not easily explained by our understanding of our world, Michael Brooks has presented an interesting collection that spans Physics problems to Mimivirus to Life-and-Death to Homeopathy to Sex/Reproduction.

Initially, in the Prologue, I was just a bit put off by the observation about Nobel Laureates fumbling with the elevator and failing, while the author manages to succeed. Almost as if winning the Nobel Prize automatically requires these fine minds to be able to tackle the more mundane daily issues.

However, as I read through each of the 13 cases, I realized that the author has indeed presented some intriguing problems that the great minds have been trying to resolve for a while now.

Ages ago, during the grad school days, I remember subscribing to this idea by Webb that the author quotes: When we refer to the laws of nature, what we are really talking about is a particular set of ideas that are striking in their simplicity, that appear to be universal and have been verified by experiment. It is thus human beings who declare that a scientific theory is a law of nature and human beings are quite often wrong.

The first part of the book dealing with the Missing Universe, the Pioneer Anomaly, Cold Fusion, and Varying Constants reiterated the understanding I gathered about the evolving methodologies regarding scientific research and progress - the tedious experiments, the mind-boggling theoretical framework, the need to reconcile between theory and experiment, the peer pressure/censure, and the race to publish the results... yet, there is very little we can claim in terms of completely understanding the nature of our universe and our life therein.

Accepting that our understanding is limited does not have to deter us from moving forward and resolving the anomalies to create a complete picture.

The parts about Life, Death, Free Will, and Sex took me back a decade and a half ago when I first read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. While I did not enjoy the God Delusion, the Blind Watchmaker seemed to make a strong case. Personally, to me, it is immaterial whether I believe in the Blind Watchmaker theory, I just enjoyed the presentation in Dawkins' book, nonetheless. But, the God Delusion sort of went over the edge for me...

But, I am digressing... well, not quite, I guess. Just like The Selfish Gene and Blind Watchmaker exposed me to other ideas, controversial ideas, ages ago, and sparked my interest in learning more about such as-yet-not-well-established-or-understood phenomena, 13 Things makes an interesting case for some of the problems presented therein.

The summary on Death addressed basic questions we've probably asked ourselves on and off, if we were so inclined. Why is there "natural death"? What is the purpose of birth, aging, and dying in evolutionary terms? And in this context, what do we define as "Life"? And what about SETI's "WOW!" signal? Fermi's Paradox: "Where is everybody?" addresses the fact that we have not encountered any other beings/intelligent life forms from outside our vicinity. Of course, it is argued that we probably have aliens all around but are not equipped to recognize or interact with them...

Incidentally, what is the purpose of sexual reproduction? Many other life forms have successfully managed asexual reproduction, some even going so far as to just evolve into an all-female or all-unisex species and copying themselves for progeniture. If creating as many copies of oneself/one's genetic make-up is the ultimate goal, then sexual reproduction seems a rather poor way to go about it...

Take Free Will, for example. So what is Free Will? Well, it is not easy to attribute our actions to something external that didn't originate in our brain, and if it did originate in us, how can we acknowledge, harness or control it? Our limited scientific understanding may not be able to explain it well, but, here again, drawing from quantum theory, it is possible that the self-observation taints the observation itself and hence the results.

The Placebo Effect was not that strong a factor for me, personally, but that's just me. However, Homeopathy. Now, here is something I have wondered about - when it works, it works and it is not easy to explain why. Scientifically, the potency, the dilution, is such that it is almost like a placebo, so why do people believe in homeopathy's miracle? The book attempts an explanation by way of changing the molecular structure, however imperceptible, in order for it to make a difference.

As the Epilogue notes, it is possible that many of the scientific discoveries we attribute to specific people today were made earlier by others, but, they either didn't know that they discovered something worth announcing, or didn't even really notice it, or possibly ignored it as it was just a side-effect observed during their primary investigation... but, the discoveries happened nonetheless, adding complexity to our understanding of our world.

All in all, a good survey with enough engaging questions and some attempted answers based on the body of knowledge we have accumulated so far... It is nice to visit these topics on and off, if only to remind ourselves of our achievement and insignificance. And to make us think.

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Blogger Dale said...

Oh, I'd like to read this! Thanks.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Sheela said...

glad to see you here, Dale... hope all's well.

11:05 AM  

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