By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Michael Brooks
Narration by: Sean Runnette
Carl Sagan said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. “At the Edge of Uncertainty” is a testament to Sagan’s observation. It is disturbing to realize how much is unknown about the fundamentals of organic life. It is particularly disturbing to hear from a science writer who infers that science and technology are only at the edge of understanding life’s unknowns.
Michael Brooks tests a layman’s knowledge of science and technology in his book, “At the Edge of Uncertainty”. Brooks’ book title infers that scientists are as uncertain about sciences’ truth as the general public. The only difference between scientists and the general public is that scientists know they do not know. One presumes that is a step in the right direction but it is highly discomfiting. Brooks makes one less comfortable by explaining how the origin and physiology of life is haphazardly tinkered with by science.
Until as late as the 1980s, science’s examination of the physiology of men and women was based on clinical trials of men. Brooks suggests that, until the 80s, medical science ignored gender differences when prescribing drug treatments or diagnosing illnesses. Brooks notes the example of Ibuprofen treatment for pain that is clinically less effective for women than men. More consequentially, Brooks gives the example of heart failure that often exhibits different symptoms in women than in men. A woman having a heart attack may complain of stomach pain and lower back pain; while men more likely complain of chest pain or shortness of breath. An incorrect diagnosis easily leads to incorrect treatment.
The FDA did not change clinical trial gender requirements for drugs until the 1990s. The FDA now requires women specifically be included in pharmacological trials, but only since 1993.
Another “…Edge of Uncertainty” noted by Brooks is in the science of epigenetics.
Epigenetics is the study of external effects on DNA; e.g. the effect of environment on turning genes off or on to fight disease. Brooks notes that women typically have two X chromosomes (a thread like structure carrying genetic information) while men only have one. Clinical studies have shown that women are more resistant to disease than men because of their genetic makeup. The edge of uncertainty is in not finding the trigger that makes two X chromosomes more resistant to disease than the one X chromosome. Epigenetic science may open doors to enlist patient’s genes to combat disease.
However, Brooks explains risks that are being taken by scientists who manipulate genes. Being able to turn genes on and off has potential for manufacture of needed organs for human transplantation.
It has been shown possible to use organic material from one species to grow organs for another species. Science is on the edge of creating a human heart in a pig or a pig’s heart for human transplantation. There is a mad scientist quality reminiscent of the monster-maker character of fiction written by H.G. Well’s in “The Island of Dr. Moreau”.
No book about science being on “…the Edge of Uncertainty” is complete without discussion of artificial intelligence and the current view of computer consciousness. Brooks notes scientist’s efforts to create a neural net computer. The idea is to duplicate the physiological function of the human brain. With refinement of quantum computerization, the world seems one step closer to being able to create a thinking computer; i.e. a computer that can successfully complete the “Turing Test” in passing itself off as human. A computer with consciousness that is capable of recalling all information known in the universe may be a Pandora’s Box that only leaves hope for survival of organic life.
The touchy and elusive subject of consciousness is explored by Brooks. The textbook definition of consciousness is “the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings that emerges from the operations of the brain”. In theory, the idea of a neural net approaches the synaptic physiology of a brain. Then the question becomes—does duplication of the synaptic physiology of a brain create consciousness, and if it does, is the computer conscious of itself only as a machine?
To round off Brooks “…11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise”, is an examination of cosmology. Brooks refers to a theory that postulates time is a fiction. Time distorts the truth of reality. In the quantum world time has no past, present, or future meaning. Max Tegmark, in “Our Mathematical Universe” argues that reality is only a matrix. Brooks suggests that reality may be a projection from the rim of the universe; i.e. organic life is merely a hologram created by atoms held together by dark energy and dark matter. The suggestion is that we are in the Matrix, a mathematical universe. There is, nor ever was, a “Big Bang”. There is only a quantum world of ones and zeros; a world where organic life is only a factoid.
“At the Edge of Uncertainty” will make careful listeners anxious and curious; maybe hopeful, maybe not.