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Book Review | At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise

Book review of Michael Brooks' 'At the Edge of Uncertainty'. In his book, Michael Brooks unveils 11 discoveries where scientists have really pushed the envelope.

“Everything we know is only some kind of approximation. Therefore, things must be learned only to be unlearned again or, more likely, to be corrected.” Richard Feynman

As a student, I was never enamoured of sciencey stuff at both school and college. Science was a different language to me, a different world – both enigmatic and complex. While I was attracted to the interesting bits like nuclear fusion, black holes, relativity, largely, I evaded the subject. In all these years of reading books, science was not on my bailiwick ever.

I took up Michael Brooks’ ‘At the Edge of Uncertainty’ with quite a bit of reluctance – unsure that I would complete it. However, after having finished the book now, I must say that reading it rekindled my imagination and sparked a renewed interest in the fantastic world of science.

Science is known to push the boundaries of knowledge to the extent of forcing us to refine our morality and ethics. In his book, Michael Brooks’ unveils 11 such discoveries where scientists have really pushed the envelope. These cutting-edge frontiers encompass an array of domains such as the inquiry into non-human consciousness, human-ape chimeras, epigenetics, hypercomputing, and so forth.

Even after decades of investigations, says Brooks, we have not been able to piece together a definitive theory of consciousness. On the contrary, ongoing research, fears the author, raises more moral questions than answers. For instance, recent studies of animals exhibiting personalities might impede scientists’ endeavors to conduct experiments on them. Imagine a scientist who has suddenly developed qualms about grafting human tumor into mice. Moral landmines of this sort could hurt the scientific enterprise. Having said that, moral disquiet is only a blip on the author’s radar.

The new frontier of human-animal chimeric experiments presents a different challenge. If Hollywood’s grotesque portrayals of the unbridled hybrid experiments (Splice and The Fly) are any sign of what such ventures could unleash, we would be prudent not to cross those boundaries. Perhaps, that’s why the public health regulations all over the world prohibit human-animal embryo mixing. I mean it’s terrifying even to imagine a pig with a human womb inside it or a goat with a thinking human brain. Brooks touches upon the extent of these horrifying possibilities, but stops well short and rightly so.

Staying with biology, Brooks advocates for epigenetics and proposes to researchers to call time on their obsession with genetics and shift attention to more imminent gene-altering factors such as food and pollution.

In another chapter, Brooks makes a more baffling revelation: the lack of gender-based medicine. Males and females are known to respond differently to different medicines; even certain diseases affect women differently than men, yet women remain under-represented in biomedical research. Most clinical drug trials are male-dominated and thus, the root cause of this ignorance. While we have made a headway into the world of evidence-based medicine, asserts the author, progress remains slow.

If Hollywood’s grotesque portrayals of the unbridled hybrid experiments (Splice and The Fly) are any sign of what such ventures could unleash, we would be prudent not to cross those boundaries.

Brooks’ astonishing journey segues further into advanced fields of science as he introduces the reader to the lesser-known domain of psychoneuroimmunology – the study of a delicate interplay between the mind and the body’s defences.

Our mind, notes Brooks, can affect our immune system and our psychological landscape in ways more than one. When hostile forces are bearing down upon us, our will to fight back and survive can make all the difference.

Conversely, when we are under stress, our mind sides with the dark forces and facilitates the release of a host of chemicals that wither down our defence mechanism. The power of the mind, in the nutshell, wields enormous hold over our lives, but this truth has long been known in many eastern cultures.

Quantum biology

Quantum weirdness enters the fray of Brooks’ mystifying revelations next. Ever since Einstein voiced his derision of quantum entanglement, quantum theory has worked its way to the core of the most significant technological developments.

The latest progress comes in the shape of quantum biology: a new science that studies the applications of quantum mechanics to biological objects. Brooks highlights this new realm through the eyes, right eye in particular, of the migratory bird Robin. This passerine bird possesses a unique ability of being able to ‘see’, literally, the earth’s magnetic field. Apparently, Robin utilizes quantum entanglement inside the protein molecules embedded in its retina to orientate itself to the earth’s magnetic field. However, this superpower goes kaput the moment you blindfold its right eye. No wonder Einstein felt happy in the realm of his absolute theories.

In the later part of the book, Brooks writes that our universe could well be a huge quantum computer and all human-beings the holographic projections from the edge of space and time. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? But such intrigue has always been central to science.

Hypercomputing appears as another cutting-edge frontier on the Brooks’ list. The conventional computers answer questions that lie well within our spheres of knowledge. Hypercomputers or super-Turing machines would help us get a handle on issues that we can’t even articulate.

Hypercomputing – should it traverse the difficult path of abstract to reality – will enable scientists to answer some of the inconceivable questions related to the universe. However, before it reaches fruition, hypercomputing will have to get over the thorny dilemma of

a) dealing with infinite measurements and

b) overcoming the fixation with theoretical foundations to make a serious thrust toward physical feasibility.

In the concluding chapter, the author describes time as an illusion. While it sounds like another unpalatable bit of hypothesis, it has traces of truth in it. The two pillars of modern physics – Einstein relativity theory and Quantum theory – both disclaim time’s existence at the fundamental level. According to the relativity theory, for an observer travelling at or close to the speed of light, times slows down substantially and might even appear static. On a different note, for Buddhist monks and Indian sages engaged in deep meditation, there is no experience of time.

Though a difficult read for those who are not versed in scientific literature, ‘At the edge of uncertainty’ ticks most of its stated objectives. It piques your curiosity and makes you wonder about what more science can achieve. Brooks asks, “How far can we go?” as he wonders whether the mankind would ever be able to unveil all aspects of reality. The answer to this question lies in the incessant efforts that scientists have logged in over the years – if that has been worth it, going forward would only be logical.

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