13 July 2015


Michael Brooks. At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise. Profile Books, 2015.

The term "discoveries" in the title of this book is rather misleading; it would be better to talk of 11 fields in which interesting and possibly paradigm busting, developments or possible developments are being made.
The first two chapters deal with research which suggests that rather than being some sort of epiphenomenon restricted to human beings and without which organisms could get along fine, consciousness is essential to survival in all complex organisms. It may well be like something to be a spider.

They also suggest that consciousness is not some all or nothing phenomenon, which emerges like a rabbit from a hat, but rather something which has built up from simpler phenomena. Not only is consciousness more widespread in the animal kingdom than we have assumed, it is also more persistent in people than has been considered the case, surviving in at least some people who have been assumed to be in a persistent vegetative state.

New developments in the science of epigenetics are again reviving the possibility of some form of inheritance of acquired characteristics, at least in the limited sense that stresses in people’s lives, especially severe malnourishment can not only affect the children born during that time but their descendants. An example of this is provided by the long term affects that the starvation that Dutch people underwent in 1944/5 has had on later generations.

The connection between human and animal is reprised in the chapter dealing with chimeras, the insertion of genes from one creature into another. This is a more subtle programme than that of trying to breed humans with chimpanzees. The role of consciousness is further explored in the chapter on psychosomatics. A section on the possible role of quantum physics in biology leads into the chapters on physics and cosmology. These include speculation that the ultimate reality is information, an attempt to construct Alan Turing’s dream of a hypercomputer, suggestions that the laws of physics may be different in different parts of the universe and that the universe may be rotating, that there are real problems with the standard approaches to the big bang, that time may be an illusion. This might be indicated by experiments which suggest that a sub-atomic particle might just not be in two places but in two times.

It would, of course, require specialist knowledge in a variety of fields to really assess some of the claims reported here, and precognition to know which are the eccentric products of maverick scientists and which, if any, are harbingers of fundamental paradigm shifts.

Though I don’t really need any psychic powers to predict that despite all of this the most controversial claim reported in this book is that women feel pain more than men. -- Peter Rogerson

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