I recently read Michael Brooks’ book Thirteen Things That Don’t Make Sense which delves into a diverse set of scientific subjects from some very specific unexplained phenomena (eg. ‘The Pioneer Anomaly’, The Wow! Signal), to some very broad scientific concepts that really lack strong models or explanations (eg. Sex, Free Will, Life).
- The Missing Universe
- The Pioneer Anomaly
- Varying Constants
- Cold Fusion
- The Wow! Signal
- A Giant Virus
- Free Will
- The Placebo Effect
The underlying message of the book is that these failures are great boons to scientific exploration and progress. It is a powerful antidote to any complacent person who thinks that science has already discovered everything of significance.
“There is something inspiring about this – and any – anomaly. When Thomas Kuhn wrote ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ in the early 1960s, he wanted examine the history of science for clues to the nature of discovery. The clues led him to invent the term – now a cliché – ‘paradigm shift’. Scientists work with one set of ideas how the world is. Everything they do, be it experimental or theoretical work, is informed by, and frames within, then set of ideas. There will be some evidence that doesn’t fit, however. At first, that evidence will be ignored or sabotaged. Eventually, though, the anomalies will pile up so high they simply cannot be ignored. Then comes crisis. Crisis, Kuhn said, is soon followed by the paradigm shift in which everyone gains a radically new way of looking at the world. Thus were conceived ideas like relativity, quantum theory, and the theory of plate tectonics.”
“Admitting that you’re stuck doesn’t come easily to scientists; they have lost the habit of recognizing it as the first step on a new and exciting path. But once you’ve done it, and enrolled your colleagues in helping resolve the sticky issue rather that proudly having them ignore it, you can continue with your journey. In science, being stuck can be a sign that you are about to make a great leap forward. The things that don’t make sense are, in some ways, the only things that matter.”