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13 unsolved scientific puzzles. Kinda.

The Times has a rather odd list of 13 Unsolved Scientific Puzzles. They’re a bit odd, and the accompanying review is even worse. Here are a few of the ‘puzzles’:

1. MOST OF THE UNIVERSE IS MISSING - We can only account for 4 per cent of the cosmos

Yep, that’s a big one. Dark matter + dark energy aren’t understood. Here’s what the other article says:

One of the great discoveries of 20th-century science was that our universe is expanding. The discovery, however, led straight to another puzzle. The puzzle is, there’s nowhere near enough matter to prevent the expanding universe from blowing apart completely into a vast, sterile infinity of lifeless interstellar dust. So how come we live in a lumpy universe, one of the lumps being the planet on which we live? There must be more matter than we can see: the famous dark matter and, to go with it, something even more mysterious – dark energy.

No – what? That’s nothing to do with anything, is it? This could be the still-lumpy phase of an expanding universe. The main problem is the acceleration itself: gravity should at least be slowing the expansion down, but it’s actually increasing. That’s dark energy, and it’s an unknown. Dark matter is the discrepancy between the mass we can see and the mass we can detect by its effect on matter. 

To date, however, there’s not a shred of evidence for either, even though teams of scientists have been looking for years. (The UK’s search “takes place 1,100m underground, in a potash mine whose tunnels reach out under the seafloor”.) The only alternative to dark matter is to tweak Newton’s most fundamental laws of physics and suggest that they don’t apply everywhere, all the time, in quite the same way. But physicists are a law-abiding bunch, and detest this idea.

No, there’s evidence for both. We can see where dark matter is, we just don’t know what it’s made from. And if it’s detectable, it must by nature be difficult to detect, so years of looking is probably necessary. Dark energy is more of an unknown quantity, but we see its effects, so something must be going on. And yes, scientists are unwilling to reject the laws of gravity (actually Einstein’s at this kind of accuracy, but whatever), since they’ve made incredibly accurate predictions up to now, and the Pioneer anomaly isn’t yet a clear-cut case of a violation of those laws.

2. THE PIONEER ANOMALY - Two spacecraft are flouting the laws of physics

Yes again. The Pioneer space probes aren’t where they should be, and it’s a bit odd.

“Nasa explicitly planned to use them as a test of Newton’s law,” explains Brooks. “The law failed the test; shouldn’t we be taking that failure seriously?”

 The article also says “decades of analysis have failed to find a straightforward reason for it”. This is what as known as taking something seriously: you try very hard to explain something unexpected, and see where that takes you. I don’t see the problem here.

4. COLD FUSION – Nuclear energy without the drama

But, despite what you might have heard, “cold fusion” never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume – supposedly only possible inside stars – can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

Cold fusion. Right. Not really an ‘unsolved scientific puzzle’, as there’s no evidence it exists, as far as I’m aware. And if you think the scientific establishment is deliberately ignoring a potential source of safe, clean energy that would completely transform the world, you’re bonkers.

5. LIFE - Are you more than just a bag of chemicals?

Fair enough. But wtf:

In labs across the world, people are taking the raw materials of living things and trying to put them together in a way that makes them come alive. In an effort to resolve the anomalous nature of life, the idea of scientists playing God has taken a whole new turn.

It’s almost like you’re referencing some fiction there…can’t think what. And when ‘God’ is just your word for ‘anything I don’t understand’, which it clearly is, then scientists are always going to be ‘playing God’, and it’s a silly thing to say.

6. METHANE FROM MARTIANS – NASA scientists found evidence for life on Mars. Then they changed their minds

On July 20, 1976, the Viking landers scooped up some Martian soil and mixed it with radioactive nutrients. The mission’s scientists all agreed that if radioactive methane was released from the soil, something must be eating the nutrients – and there must be life on Mars. The experiment gave a positive result, but NASA denied an official detection of Martian life. 

Yeah, because the results were contradictory and ambiguous. Yeesh. The atmospheric methane increases are pretty cool, though.

Ok, I need to skip a few or I’ll run out of time. Arguments over sexual reproduction and death seem somewhat misprepresented, lack of free will1 is given short shrift (rejected out of hand in the accompanying article) and the placebo effect is indeed genuinely mysterious, but then at the end there’s this:

13. HOMEOPATHY - It’s patently absurd, so why won’t it go away?

How the hell did this get in here? He says “there remains some slim evidence that homeopathy works” – and this is what, exactly? And what of the many, many double-blind trials that suggest otherwise? I would like to point out that people still worship Greek Gods. It’s ridiculous, but why won’t it go away? Maybe we should look again at Greek Gods.

The ‘puzzles’ are all taken from a book, which gives me pause – maybe the full text is more rigorous, and these quick generalisations are written by someone who doesn’t understand the issues. But Uncertain Principles perhaps has some insight: the author worked for New Scientist, and the book apparently has the typical New Scientist attitude of glorifying fringe work, making dramatic declarations on the imminent overturning of long-held theories, and paying little attention to consensus. Seems to fit with the above.

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One comment

  1. A further pedantic problem with the review article (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/non-fiction/article5718302.ece):

    “In his next chapter, however, Brooks considers the curious afterlives of the Pioneer spacecraft, which only seem to cast more doubt on the universal truth of Newton’s law.”

    and

    ““Nasa explicitly planned to use them as a test of Newton’s law,” explains Brooks. “The law failed the test; shouldn’t we be taking that failure seriously?” ”

    I’m pretty sure Einstein’s theory of relativity stated that Newton’s laws of motion are not universal truths. I assume all these expert physicists at the Planetary Society have accounted for (probably minor) relativistic effects and something has been lost in translation in this review.

    I’ll have to check the book itself to see what’s what.

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