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We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy. Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1888

The Things That Don't Make Sense

How today’s anomalies will guide the future of science

Science has always progressed through efforts to understand phenomena that defy explanation. The anomalies puzzling us today are not an embarrassment to be swept under the carpet but a hint of the scientific revolutions to come…

The universe is still a mysterious place: 96 per cent of it is missing – or at least in the unexplained forms of dark energy and dark matter. In the trajectories of the Pioneer probes we have hints of new forces and there seem to be hitherto unacknowledged complications in the laws and constants of physics. We can’t develop an understanding of the universe until we know what the particles and forces are, and how they relate together. Until we make sense of these anomalies, a theory of everything will remain out of reach. But what if they hold a clue to a shockingly simple solution? What if they are telling us the answer is not through more complexity but through a simple tweak to the ideas we have at the moment.

There are revolutions-in-waiting in the anomalies on Earth, too. Scientists have traditionally solved our technological problems as a by-product of more esoteric research; our energy problems have never been more acute and a couple of scientists may have stumbled upon the pathway to a solution in 1989 when they were looking for answers about what is surely the most esoteric of theories: quantum electrodynamics. Their controversial discovery, that energy can be liberated from atomic nuclei at room temperature, sparked a scientific scandal, but it refuses to go away. Physics and chemistry is confounded by the apparent persistence of cold fusion. But – if we can make sense of it – what a payoff.

Chemistry is also confounded by the presence of something else: the phenomenon we call life. When does an assembly of molecules get that special thing we call being alive? The definition of life is troublesome, and perhaps the best way to work on it is to create it for ourselves. But that is proving incredibly difficult. Nevertheless, we can all agree there is life on Earth. And there is no reason to think it doesn’t exist elsewhere. The Viking mission tells us it probably exists on Mars, and if the Wow! Signal is anything to go by, it may well have evolved into intelligent life somewhere else. It seems ridiculous, but why? If we discover life beyond Earth, especially intelligent life, it would be our greatest discovery. The thing is, we may already have made it.

Of course, science is done by human beings, and when we’ve never seen certain things, we generally remain blind to the possibility that they might exist. We are hopeless about seeing the big picture. There’s a lesson to learn from the giant virus found recently in Bradford: not only is it confounding the debate about what life is, it’s also re-drawing the evolutionary history of life on Earth. And we are finding new viruses all the time – who’s to say what surprises are just around the corner? When it comes to understanding the living world, nothing is yet set in stone.

Not that the evolutionary story was a closed book (despite what you might have heard): there are anomalies in sex, and in ageing and death, that can’t be accommodated yet, for example – we don’t even really know why we have sex, why we have sex with the creatures we do, and why we have to die at the end of it all. The explaiantions for sex, ageing and death might be linked – and the evolution of the giant virus might be part of that tale too.

When it comes down to it, it’s probably something to do with chemistry: we are just bags of molecules, after all, and the complex nature of our biochemistry is only just coming to light. It’s especially complicated when our own consciousness affects it too: the placebo effect is a complication that medicine has yet to fully appreciate or embrace. It may even be more complicated than we feared: the refusal of homeopathy to disappear, the fact that it seems to have effects over and above placebo hints that our body chemistry, and the chemistry of biological liquids in general, is still pretty much a mystery to us.

If placebo and homeopathy are a hint that the chemicals that make our brain what it is have an astonishing power over bodies, that trick is nothing compared to what that chemical trick we call consciousness can do about our view of the world around us. Our consciousness has created the biggest con trick of all: the illusion of free will. Science makes it clear that we are biological machines controlled by the atoms and molecules of the thing we call our brain. But it seems that really it’s not the brain that belongs to us, it’s we that belong to the brain. Here we might make the greatest discovery of all: the very essence of the human experience. The question is, how will future humans live with the consequences of this revelation?