The fastest supercomputer in the world - 2000. Your toaster probably has more computing power now. Photo: Getty
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Reviewed: At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise

Ian Steadman reviews Michael Brooks’s book on scientific discovery.

At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise 
Michael Brooks

When the Higgs boson was detected by the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, it was something of a bitter-sweet moment for many scientists. The way it provided a neat resolution to the final outstanding problem with the structure of fundamental particles was just too tidy for many. It was the last chapter of 20th-century particle physics but it did little to bring to light any new mysteries that would need solving.

Science, after all, needs mysteries and surprises, as the subtitle of Michael Brooks’s latest book, At the Edge of Uncertainty, makes clear. If you feel that we have not only picked the low-hanging fruit but also shaken the tree naked, then this journey through 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise will thoroughly disavow you of that notion.

Starting breezily and ending profoundly, it’s a look at the current state of several major scientific disciplines – from research into consciousness and computer science to epigenetics and studies in animal culture – with Brooks (who writes a weekly column for the New Statesman) communicating difficult stuff in a typically amiable and lucid manner. He doesn’t get into hard data but rather takes the reader on quick tours through the history of a science, picking up on relevant or remarkable anecdotes along the way.

One highlight is the tale of Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, a Russian veterinarian to the tsars whose job artificially inseminating racehorses evolved in the early 20th century into an obsession with trying to breed a human/ape hybrid. This horror story was later suppressed by the Soviet Union but Brooks points out that stem-cell research necessarily requires experimenting with human/animal chimeras in the laboratory. A human embryo could accidentally form inside a mouse and, he writes, there is “the other nightmare” of “the pig – or monkey or mouse – with a human brain”.

A recurring theme is the idea that scientists often push forward with research faster than they can understand its moral or political consequences, even if it is rarely out of malice. By definition scientists need to “push at the door of what is possible” and: “The reactions of the society around them are what keep them in check.” Yet there’s a metaphysical note to these 11 topics, too. We find many of these things strange or surprising because they expose how limited our perspective, as clever apes, can be.

Supercomputers, for example, work in binary – but the universe doesn’t. Imaginations and learning are features of non-binary organisms (such as us) but our ability to create machines that can understand more than binary is stymied by “our picture of reality, [which] tends to be constrained by our conception of time and sits within just a few dimensions of space”.

In another chapter, time is revealed to be an illusion – as proven by Buddhist monks or volunteers high on magic mushrooms, observed using magnetic resonance imaging machines. It appears that we perceive it as we do only because this is the most effective survival strategy for the world in which we find ourselves.

Later, Brooks writes about quantum uncertainty and how the act of observing something on the quantum level causes it to change – but astonishingly it seems that the universe might be best understood as a computer simulation (running on God-knows-what) and that quantum uncertainty reflects our ability to “reprogramme” the world as we see it. “We become participators in the processes of the universe . . . We are in a paper-scissors-stone situation where we cannot find the logic to disentangle ourselves from the universe.”

From this perspective, consciousness is the inevitable result of a computer the size of the universe running for billions of years; Carl Sagan’s observation that “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” was more true than he ever realised.

“The edge of uncertainty,” writes Brooks, “is not a static line, but a dynamic, ever-changing set of answers. What other way is there for humans to behave than to push at the boundaries of our knowledge and our existence – even if the act of pushing exposes our ignorance?” A curious result of reading At the Edge of Uncertainty is to come away with a net total of new ignorance, not new knowledge – but also a sense of excitement at the inevitable success of science to remedy it. 

Ian Steadman is a staff writer on science and technology at the New Statesman

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

@Simon_Cullen via Twitter
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All 27 things wrong with today’s Daily Mail front cover

Where do I even start?

Hello. Have you seen today’s Daily Mail cover? It is wrong. Very wrong. So wrong that if you have seen today’s Daily Mail cover, you no doubt immediately turned to the person nearest to you to ask: “Have you seen today’s Daily Mail cover? It is wrong.”

But just how wrong is the wrong Mail cover? Let me count the ways.

  1. Why does it say “web” and not “the web”?
  2. Perhaps they were looking on a spider’s web and to be honest that makes more sense because
  3. How does it take TWO MINUTES to use a search engine to find out that cars can kill people?
  4. Are the Mail team like your Year 8 Geography teacher, stuck in an infinite loop of typing G o o g l e . c o m into the Google search bar, the search bar that they could’ve just used to search for the thing they want?
  5. And then when they finally typed G o o g l e . c o m, did they laboriously fill in their search term and drag the cursor to click “Search” instead of just pressing Enter?
  6. The Daily Mail just won Newspaper of the Year at the Press Awards
  7. Are the Daily Mail – Newspaper of the Year – saying that Google should be banned?
  8. If so, do they think we should ban libraries, primary education, and the written word?
  9. Sadly, we know the answer to this
  10. Google – the greatest source of information in the history of human civilisation – is not a friend to terrorists; it is a friend to teachers, doctors, students, journalists, and teenage girls who aren’t quite sure how to put a tampon in for the first time
  11. Upon first look, this cover seemed so obviously, very clearly fake
  12. Yet it’s not fake
  13. It’s real
  14. More than Google, the Mail are aiding terrorists by pointing out how to find “manuals” online
  15. While subsets of Google (most notably AdSense) can be legitimately criticised for profiting from terrorism, the Mail is specifically going at Google dot com
  16. Again, do they want to ban Google dot com?
  17. Do they want to ban cars?
  18. Do they want to ban search results about cars?
  19. Because if so, where will that one guy from primary school get his latest profile picture from?
  20. Are they suggesting we use Bing?
  21. Why are they, once again, focusing on the perpetrator instead of the victims?
  22. The Mail is 65p
  23. It is hard to believe that there is a single person alive, Mail reader or not, that can agree with this headline
  24. Three people wrote this article
  25. Three people took two minutes to find out cars can drive into people
  26. Trees had to die for this to be printed
  27. It is the front cover of the Mail

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.