The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Michael Brooks

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The Interview: Bookbag talks to Michael Brooks

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Summary: In 13 Things That Don't Make Sense, Michael Brooks looks at 13 experiments and ideas that don't quite sit right with accepted scientific thinking. He was kind enough to discuss them further with Bookbag.
Date: 27 January 2009
Interviewer: Keith Dudhnath
Reviewed by Keith Dudhnath

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In 13 Things That Don't Make Sense, Michael Brooks looks at 13 experiments and ideas that don't quite sit right with accepted scientific thinking. He was kind enough to discuss them further with Bookbag.

  • Bookbag: Not that science works that way, but if you could choose, which of the anomalies in 13 Things That Don't Make Sense would you most like to be proven and disproven?

Michael Brooks: I'd like homeopathy to be disproven. I got a lot of flak for including it in the book, but decided that it did merit its chapter: science has consistently failed to show that it doesn't have an effect – indeed, the most reliable studies suggest it has some effect above placebo (not that we know exactly what that means any more – but that's another chapter!) The thing is, I think this is a result of science not having the tools to deal with the subject properly. That's a prejudiced view, of course, because I just cannot conceive of a way in which these ultra-dilute solutions can have any medical effect.

I'd like cold fusion proved. I think there's something to it, I think it could change the world, and I have huge respect for the scientists involved. In 13 Things I tell the story of Melvin Miles, who was a respected, widely-published scientist who ended up working in his laboratory's stock room just because his boss hated Miles's interest in cold fusion. I think this an outrage, and I'd love Miles's interest (and hard work) to be vindicated.

  • BB: Had you written this book 100 years ago, which mysteries would you have included, which have now been answered one way or another?

MB: There was a problem with the orbit of Mercury – it is a tiny bit out from what Newton's laws predict. Then, after Einstein published General Relativity, it turned out to solve the problem effortlessly. It wasn't the thing that provoked Einstein to create General Relativity, but it was a great spin-off. That's the beauty of science: it's messy and unpredictable, and if you set out to solve one thing, you'll probably make progress on another seemingly different problem.

  • BB: A couple of chapters discuss cold fusion and homeopathy. Was it difficult to question these without playing into the hands of pseudoscience?

MB: With homeopathy it was. The subject, even the scientific literature on the subject, is full of propaganda, half-truths and prejudice – from both sides. Steering a course through this was incredibly difficult. Cold fusion was a lot easier, for two reasons. First, most of the people involved are very low-key about it, and are not interested in their careers and reputations (clearly!), or making money. They tell the truth, warts and all, and they tell it very straight. Second, those very same people protected me from the loony fringe of their subject, warning me about who I should avoid. From the media reports and the scientific community's attitude, you'd think all cold fusion researchers were raving new age fanatics, but they're really not. I was astonished that they had such a mature attitude after the treatment they have received: there really is a solid core of good, level-headed scientists working to resolve the anomaly.

  • BB: Do you think the Nobel laureates finally figured out how to use the elevator, or did they take the stairs?

MB: If you bang the door hard enough, the elevator works. I imagine that they got there in the end: even the best theorists know that brute force is usually the answer to a stubborn problem!

  • BB: Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?

MB: After so many years writing non-fiction, writing a novel was certainly a challenge - and I always like a challenge. But the sense of accomplishment is equally strong for both: when people tell you that they like what you've done, it doesn't matter whether you made it all up, or whether you dug deep into something in the real world. Both are incredibly satisfying, and I hope I get to do both again.

  • BB: What job did you want to do when you were a child?

MB: I wanted to be a fighter pilot from the age of 8. It lasted: I remember going to the RAF careers office at 16, to pick up the forms to join up. Then I had an eye test and found that I couldn't be accepted in the fast jet programme, so I walked away from the idea. I'm so glad now – but there is still a part of me that wishes I hadn't given up so easily.

  • BB: Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

MB: Mr Sumner, my secondary school physics teacher. I was in the worst comprehensive school in Swindon (it's since been put out of its misery and turned into one of those shiny new Academy schools), but I had the best teacher anyone could hope for. He taught us in a way that made it all seem incredibly interesting, and he would pause lessons to let us debate the implications of what we were learning. I dedicated the book to him, and sent him a copy. He phoned me up when it arrived, and we had a lovely chat about science and education. It's something I'm deeply concerned about in the UK: the system just seems to work against teachers who want to inspire their students as well as teach them.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment?

MB: I'm just coming to the end of Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle. It's moving, compelling, laugh out loud funny in some places, and really horrific in others. I have to say, it's one of the best books I've ever read.

  • BB: Which book has most influenced you and do you still have a copy?

MB: The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. There's something about the mix of fact and fiction: he's exploring the anthropology of the Australian aboriginals, mixing it up with their stories, and there's all Chatwin's travels and adventures and the fascinating characters he encounters... it just has it all. It's the kind of book you dream of having the skill to write. And yes I have a copy. It's a dog-eared paperback – I read it about once a year.

  • What's next for Michael Brooks?

I'm not sure: I'm being worked hard by New Scientist, I'm developing another novel and some non-fiction ideas. We'll see...

  • BB: Thank you so much for the fascinating responses. All the best for the future.

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