Margie Beilharz Reviews At the edge of uncertainty: 11 discoveries taking science by surprise

Review by Margie Beilharz

At the edge of uncertainty: 11 discoveries taking science by surprise
By Michael Brooks

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Just as explorers today can’t expect to find new continents, much of modern science proceeds by incremental gains, rather than spectacular discoveries. But in some areas, radical ideas are challenging our current understanding of the world.

In this book, physicist and writer Michael Brooks investigates eleven areas of science where the discoveries might be game-changing, providing “a glimpse of today’s edge” of uncertainty.

He covers topics such as: what is consciousness? (as opposed to zombies); could we be living in a big hologram?; is the universe a quantum computer?; and is time a subjective invention to allow us to survive?

I’m sure it won’t faze Brooks when I say that some of these topics made my brain hurt. The edge is a difficult place, and it should not be otherwise. I should also say that theoretical physics and I only go so far before disbelief sets in. I realise this may say more about me than about this book.

I don’t mean that the book is technical or difficult to read. Brooks writes the science lightly, with endnotes rather than references in the text. This does mean the reader doesn’t know if a particular line of argument is supported by research or a throwaway idea, but you can always check.

Other topics were more familiar, and within the scope of everyday life: should we consider sex (of research subjects) when we do clinical trials?; do animals have personalities or culture?; how can changes caused by environmental factors affect our offspring and their descendants.

The last area is epigenetics—one of the hot topics in biology. Here Brooks presents published data from real populations rather than futuristic theoretical ideas. If you read much at all in the sciences, the material in this chapter will be familiar, but his take on the implications is interesting: knowing the long-lasting impact of environmental factors such as poor nutrition and stress brings with it a moral imperative to take action now to help future generations.

Where Brooks does push the biological science boundaries in is in the chapter on chimeras, or animal–human hybrids. We are chimeras in a way—our bodies are made up of human and bacterial cells—yet the very idea ranks as one of the big taboos in modern society.

Already we use chimeras for medical research and treatment, such as the transgenic bacteria that produce human insulin for diabetics. But Brooks raises the fearful prospect that the mixing of human and animal could go further, possibly by accident. What if human stem cells injected into a pig to grow a liver for xenotransplantation get into the pig’s brain or gonads? Could a future chimeric pig grow human brain cells (and start to think like a human) or produce human sperm or eggs (and give rise to human offspring)?

Brooks points out that our collective memory of scientific ideas is short, which means that, in 10 or 20 years’ time, some of the more radical ideas discussed here may become not only accepted by scientists, but also mainstream. If you want to get there first, this book is a good place to start.

margie-beilharzMargie Beilharz

Margie Beilharz is a writer and editor with over six years’ experience in science communication. She followed a PhD in Zoology with work in environmental policy in the Victorian National Parks Service and then as a lecturer at Deakin University. After studying technical communication to get back into the workforce after a family break, which included two years living in London, Margie joined science PR firm Science in Public, working on a communication projects for a wide range of clients. Now she’s added freelance writing and editing at The Open Desk into the mix, and has taken on the role of newsletter editor for Editors Victoria.

Margie on twitter: @mbll

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