Friday, June 30, 2006

What We Believe But Cannot Prove, John Brockman

Title: What We Believe But Cannot Prove
Author: John Brockman
Rating: OK

What We Believe But Cannot Prove came to my attention via a mention in the back of a copy of Science News. In each issue of that weekly magazine they recommend a set of science related books. This book was in such a list and it sounded interesting, so I got ahold of a copy via

Capsule review: it was OK, but it could have been better.

The book consists of a series of very short (1 sentence to 4 page) essays by leading thinkers - mostly in scientific fields - about exactly what the title says: what they believe but cannot prove. There exists a web site - - that provides these people a place to publish articles on "third culture" topics. (Don't ask me to explain what "third culture" means. I don't know, but a quick look a the web site suggests that I need to spend some time there.) Each year they also ask a question - the "Edge Question" - of their contributors and publish their responses. This book is the collected responses to the 2005 question, which is (again) the title.

A lot of people contributed to this little book. I just wish there was more to it. My wife - always one with a good quote - scanned it one evening and called it the mental equivalent of potato chips.

For me, the reaction is a bit more complicated. A few of the contributions were genuinely interesting, and those I wanted see fleshed out in more detail so I could learn more about the issues presented. A few more of the essays were just plain stupid or wrong to my mind. (Yes, I know, I am not on the same intellectual plane as these people. Tough. Anyone who says that there is no physical world "out there" lives in an entirely different universe from me. I'll be judgmental in such a case if I want to be, and I do.) Most of the contents, though, were pretty much what I would expect. Not at all surprising to me - someone reasonably well read on science related issues. But even those items needed better fleshing out to help people less familiar with the concepts understand what is being discussed.

So there's part of the problem for me: perhaps 10% of the book was interesting enough to hold my attention in depth. The rest was ho-hum or caused me to wonder what the authors were smoking. Not a very fulfilling reading experience.

And there is another issue with this book: I don't know who the target audience is. If it is intended for the scientifically literate it needs to be deeper on each topic, or provide references to relevant literature, or something. If it is intended for the layperson it fails for lack of enough detail to even start to draw someone into the concepts presented.

So while I give this book an "OK" review, I'm not sure I recommend it.