A compendium of bizarre scientific hypotheses is more intoxicating than illuminating.
In all probability, you will stagger home from this encounter with the feeling that your brain has expanded a few centimetres in diameter and you’re all the wiser for it, but wake up the next day slightly hungover and concerned that yet another evening has been wasted.
You may remember Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), a convivial, middle-of-the-road approach to how we look at the universe. Boese takes us on the alternative route, along a rough gravel road through the backblocks. What if the Big Bang never happened? Perhaps dinosaurs were a lot smarter than we think and blew themselves up in a nuclear inferno. You wonder how people found the time to consider such matters.
Most of this work came from academia – from scholars with salaries, sabbaticals and ample leisure time. Many of them hoped, no doubt, to feature in a work such as Bryson’s, but their cantankerous natures, obsession with “what ifs” and self-belief led them along the dusty road to obscurity. They have ended up in Boese’s book, instead.
They are not, however, humiliated. Boese does science and these outsider scientists justice by succinctly explaining the delicate nuances of sub-atomic particle motion, what the space-time continuum is and how it is possible for living creatures to survive in outer space. He also points out that many once-weird ideas have now become accepted. Continental drift, the out-of-Africa theory and dark matter are examples of bizarre ideas that eventually transitioned to the mainstream. This deftly opens up the possibility that other completely wacko ideas – what if there is only one electron in the universe? – might someday join these ranks, too. Boese’s other books – Elephants on Acid, Electrified Sheep and Hippo Eats Dwarf – also have the tone of a bar lecture. Here though, he goes much further by making science interesting for everyone. I’ll drink to that.
PSYCHEDELIC APES, by Alex Boese (Pan Macmillan, $30.95)
This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.