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25 July 2014

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

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

By Ian Steadman

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”.

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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