This is a wide-ranging popular review of some scientific anomalies. On the whole I found the chapters on physics and cosmology more satisfying than those on biological subjects, perhaps because Brooks is himself trained as a physicist.
The book starts with a discussion of why only 4 per cent of the matter in the universe can be accounted for; the balance is attributed to the mysterious dark matter and the equally mysterious dark energy. Some physicists have tried to get round the difficulty by postulating modififications of gravity.
The laws of physics have also been called into question to explain slight variations in the trajectories of the two Pioneer space probes. The deviations are small but so far no convincing reason for them has been put forward.
The 'cold fusion' experiments of Pons and Fleischmann have often been dismissed as erroneus, but Brooks gives them a fair amount of credence. Subsequent work at other centres has shown that some kind of nuclear reaction is going on although there is no reliable evidence of extra energy production.
There are chapters looking at the origin of life and at attempts to find evidence for life on Mars. This leads to a chapter looking at the strange episode in 1959 when a radio signal was picked up that was exactly what would be expected if it came from an alien civilisation. Unfortunately it lasted only a short time and was never repeated, but attempts to find a terrestrial explanation for it have failed. Apart from this there is no evidence for extraterrestrial life, but Brooks is right to say that the search for it is worth while because the question is so important.
The biological chapters look at giant viruses, reasons why death and sex exist, free will, the placebo effect, and homeopathy. The last two are the only ones I have professonal knowledge of: I found the discussion to be fairly superficial though balanced as far as it goes. One thing which certainly doesn't make sense is the claim that there are 5500 people working at The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital—I don't think you could get that number into the building! (I emailed Brooks about this and he conceded it was an error.)
There are no real surprises in the book and some of the subjects are barely skimmed, but it would entertain and stimulate a young reader with an interest in science.
2 June 2009