Cover image for The canon : a whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science
Title:
The canon : a whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science
ISBN:
9780618242955
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.
Physical Description:
293 p. ; 24 cm.
Contents:
Thinking scientifically -- Probabilities -- Calibration -- Physics -- Chemistry -- Evolutionary biology -- Molecular biology -- Geology -- Astronomy.
Subject Term:
Summary:
Award-winning science journalist Angier takes us on a "guided twirligig through the scientific canon." She draws on conversations with hundreds of the world's top scientists, and her own work as a reporter for the New York Times, to create an entertaining guide to scientific literacy--a joyride through the major scientific disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy. It's for anyone who wants to understand the great issues of our time--from stem cells and bird flu to evolution and global warming. It's also one of those rare books that reignites our childhood delight in figuring out how things work: we learn what's actually happening when our ice cream melts or our coffee gets cold, what our liver cells do when we eat a caramel, how the horse shows evolution at work, and that we really are all made of stardust.--From publisher description.
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Summary

Summary

In this exuberant book, the best-selling author Natalie Angier distills the scientific canon to the absolute essentials, delivering an entertaining and inspiring one-stop science education.Angier interviewed a host of scientists, posing the simple question 'What do you wish everyone knew about your field?' The Canon provides their answers, taking readers on a joyride through the fascinating fundamentals of the incredible world around us and revealing how they are relevant to us every day.Angier proves a rabble-rousing, wisecracking, deeply committed tour guide in her irresistible exploration of the scientific process and the basic concepts of physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, cellular and molecular biology, geology, and astronomy.Even science-phobes will find her passion infectious as she strives "to make the invisible visible, the distant neighborly, the ineffable affable."


Author Notes

Natale Angier is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for the New York Times and a frequent contributor to many magazines. Her honors include the Lewis Thomas Award and the AAAS Science Journalism Award. Her books include Natural Obsessions: Striving to Unlock the Deepest Secrets of the Cancer Cell and The Beauty of the Beastly: New Views on the Nature of Life.

She lives near Washington D.C.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Pulitzer-winning science writer Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography) distills everything you've forgotten from your high school science classes and more into one enjoyable book, a guide for the scientifically perplexed adult who wants to understand what those guys in lab coats on the news are babbling about, in the realms of physics, chemistry, biology, geology or astronomy. More important even than the brief rundowns of atomic theory or evolution-enlivened by interviews with scientists like Brian Greene-are the first three chapters on scientific thinking, probability and measurement. These constitute the basis of a scientific examination of the world. Understand these principles, Angier argues, and suddenly, words like "theory" and "statistically significant" have new meaning. Angier focuses on a handful of key concepts, allowing her to go into some depth on each; even so, her explanations can feel rushed, though never dry. Angier's writing can also be overadorned with extended metaphors that obscure rather than explain, but she eloquently asks us to attend to the universe: to really look at the stars, at the plants, at the stones around us. This is a pleasurable and nonthreatening guide for anyone baffled by science. (May 8) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Booklist Review

Popular indifference toward science regularly motivates writers to attempt mass-market enlightenment. Travel writer Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) was a best-selling smash, and Angier, better credentialed in science writing and the author of the blockbuster Woman: An Intimate Geography (1999), now makes her bid. In contrast with Bryson's fact- and history-heavy approach, Angier's way of reaching the sciencephobic relies on love of language. Angier deploys extravagantly cascading metaphors, puns, and tangents to plant awareness of central scientific concepts for those who may be vague on what causes the seasons. Covering physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and evolutionary and cell biology, Angier induces from scientists in each discipline a zeal comparable to her own for figural explanations of science. Scientific thinking, though, radically differs from our subjective experience of the natural world in a way that Angier creatively illustrates in explaining theory, probability, and scale. Some readers may find Angier's wordplay excessively indulgent, but her core audience will delight in her ecstatic exuberance for all things scientific. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2007 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

A BABY sucks on a pencil and her panicky mother fears the child will get lead poisoning. A politician argues that hydrogen can replace fossil fuels as our nation's energy source. A consumer tells a reporter that she refuses to eat tomatoes that have genes in them. And a newsmagazine condemns the prospects of cloning because it could mass-produce an army of zombies. These are just a few examples of scientific illiteracy - inane misconceptions that could have been avoided with a smidgen of freshman science. (For those afraid to ask: pencil "lead" is carbon; hydrogen fuel takes more energy to produce than it releases; all living things contain genes; a clone is just a twin.) Though we live in an era of stunning scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. People who would sneer at the vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics. Most of our intellectual magazines discuss science only when it bears on their political concerns or when they can portray science as just another political arena. As the nation's math departments and biotech labs fill up with foreign students, the brightest young Americans learn better ways to sue one another or to capitalize on currency fluctuations. And all this is on top of our nation's endless supply of New Age nostrums, psychic hot lines, creationist textbook stickers and other flimflam. The costs of an ignorance of science are not just practical ones like misbegotten policies, forgone cures and a unilateral disarmament in national competitiveness. There is a moral cost as well. It is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it's made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse. In "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science," Natalie Angier aims to do her part for scientific literacy. Though Angier is a regular contributor to the Science Times section of this newspaper, "The Canon" departs from the usual treatment of science by journalists, who typically cover the "news," the finding that upsets the apple cart, rather than the consensus. Though one can understand why journalists tend to report the latest word from the front - editors' demand for news rather than pedagogy, and the desire to show that science is a fractious human activity rather than priestly revelation - this approach doesn't always serve a widespread understanding of science. The results of isolated experiments are more ephemeral than conclusions from literature reviews (which usually don't fit into a press release), and the discovery-du-jour approach can whipsaw readers between contradictory claims and leave them thinking, "Whatever." Angier's goals are summed up in two words in her subtitle: beautiful basics. "The Canon" presents the fundamentals of science: numbers and probability, matter and energy, the origins and structure of living things, and the natural history of our planet, solar system, galaxy and universe. These are, she judges, the basics that every educated person should master, and a prerequisite to a genuine understanding of the material in any newspaper's science coverage. And she presents these basics as beautiful: worthy of knowing for their own sake, even if they won't help us save the planet, age successfully or compete with the Chinese. "The Canon" begins on an engaging note, lamenting what is one of my pet peeves as well - the idea that science is something for kids. When their children turn 13, Angier notes, many parents abandon their memberships in zoos and science museums for more "mature" institutions like theaters and art museums. And who can blame them, when visiting a modern science museum, in her priceless description, consists of a "mad pinball pinging from one hands-on science exhibit to the next, pounding on knobs to make artificial earthquakes, or cranking gears to see Newton's laws in motion, or something like that; who bothers to read the explanatory placards anyway? And, oops, hmm, hey, Mom, this thing seems to have stopped working!" Many new science museums seem to be built on the dubious theory that a person's life interests are formed in childhood - that "just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined." Instead they may be conveying the message "When I was a child ... I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Angier's first chapter, "Thinking Scientifically," makes the case for scientific literacy and portrays the mind-set of scientists. Anyone who knows a boffin (as the British affectionately call the women and men in white coats) will recognize the passionate and irreverent voices of her subjects. ("Most of the time," one of them tells her, "when you get an amazing, counterintuitive result, it means you screwed up the experiment.") Thankfully, she does not try to render something called "the scientific method" (a phrase that never passes the lips of a real scientist) but conveys the idea that science is just the attempt to understand the world with a special effort to ensuring that the things you say about it are true. The remaining chapters cover probability, large and small numbers, physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy. Though the material is up-to-date, Angier stays clear of cutting-edge discoveries and in-house controversies. She also wisely avoids the dreary peace-and-ecology sermon with which so many scientists feel they must conclude their popular books. Every author of a book on science faces the challenge of how to enliven material that is not part of people's day-to-day concerns. The solutions include the detective story, the suspenseful race to a discovery, the profile of a colorful practitioner, the reportage of a raging controversy and the use of a hook from history, art or current affairs. The lure that Angier deploys is verbal ornamentation: her prose is a blooming, buzzing profusion of puns, rhymes, wordplay, wisecracks and Erma-Bombeckian quips about the indignities of everyday life. Angier's language is always clever, and sometimes witty, but "The Canon" would have been better served if her Inner Editor had cut the verbal gimmickry by a factor of three. It's not just the groaners, like "Einstein made the pi wider," or the clutter, like "So now, at last, I come to the muscle of the matter, or is it the gristle, or the wishbone, the skin and pope's nose?" The deeper problem is a misapplication of the power of the verbal analogy in scientific exposition. A good analogy does not just invoke some chance resemblance between the thing being explained and the thing introduced to explain it. It capitalizes on a deep similarity between the principles that govern the two things. When Richard Dawkins, discussing the evolution of aggressive standoffs between animals in "The Selfish Gene," wanted to explain that any signal of a wavering will should be disfavored by natural selection, he wrote, "The poker face would evolve." Dawkins intends the poker face not simply as a metaphor that conveys a visual image (say, like the one a writer might use to depict a sphinx), but as an allusion to a deeper principle, an allusion that allows one to understand the phenomenon. Just as a poker player actively tries to hide his reactions, natural selection may select against features of an organism that would otherwise divulge its internal state. And just as it would do no good for the poker player to lie about his hand (because the other players would learn to ignore the lie), selection would not favor an animal giving a false signal about its intentions (because its adversaries would evolve to ignore the signal). Moreover, the analogy allows one to make a prediction: that just as an adversary in poker will develop increasingly sensitive radar for any twitch or body language that leaks through - the "tell" - animals may evolve increasingly sensitive radar for any tells in their rivals. A good analogy helps you think: the more you ponder it, the better you understand the phenomenon. But all too often in Angler's writing, the similarity is sound-deep: the more you ponder the allusion, the worse you understand the phenomenon. For example, in explaining the atomic nucleus, she writes, "Many of the more familiar elements have pretty much the same number of protons and neutrons in their hub: carbon the egg carton, with six of one, half dozen of the other; nitrogen like a 1960s cocktail, Seven and Seven; oxygen an aria of paired octaves of protons and neutrons." This is showing off at the expense of communication. Spatial arrangements (like eggs in a carton), mixed ingredients (like those of a cocktail) and harmonically related frequencies (like those of an octave) are all potentially relevant to the structure of matter (and indeed are relevant to closely related topics in physics and chemistry), so Angler forces readers to pause and determine that these images should be ignored here. Not only do readers have to work to clear away the verbal overgrowth, but a substantial proportion of them will be misled and will take the flourishes literally. (Trust me: I've graded exams.) Still, "The Canon" is never dull or obscure, and despite the distracting wordplay, most of Angler's explanations are anything but superficial. She conveys the real substance of field after field, without distortion or dumbing down, and often her sensual descriptions (of the interior of a cell, a star or the Earth, for instance) leave the reader with images both vivid and useful. "The Canon" is an excellent introduction (or refresher) to the beautiful basics of science, and I hope it is widely read. It could make the country smarter. Though we live in an era of great scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. Steven Pinker is Johnstone professor of psychology at Harvard University. His seventh book, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature," will be published in September.


Choice Review

After reading Canon in tandem with a dictionary, this reviewer sat down to write this review and found the need to check one more definition: "whirligig." Her brain was indeed spinning like a toy top. Although enjoying Pulitzer Prize winner Angier's poetic ramblings, her command of the written word, and her humor and style, it was more difficult to read than the facts she was trying to explain. The first few chapters on scientific method, probability, and measurement are well presented with entertaining anecdotes from her interviews with prominent academics, but the chapters on the separate disciplines were easier to comprehend in Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (CH, Nov'03, 41-1524). There are chapter references and an index, although it is puzzling why Singapore Air and Creston Avenue in the Bronx are indexed when they are mentioned only once. This book would appeal to a well-read adult with a curiosity for the scientific process, someone perhaps more familiar with the humanities or social sciences who is looking for a pleasant diversion. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through faculty. L. A. Hall California State University, Sacramento


Kirkus Review

Decrying smug scientific illiteracy, New York Times science writer Angier (Woman, 1999, etc.) deftly sets forth the universally accepted principles underlying basic science that everyone should understand. This bestselling author's love of words is writ large here. Hardly a page goes by without an internal rhyme ("sirs and madams we're all made of atoms"), or an unexpected adjective (a gecko with a nose of "Necco pink"), or a blunt descriptor (the living cell is squishy like snot) that sets up a what-will-she-say-next? tease. A snappy style is simply her way of making sure we pay attention as Angier presents chapters on thinking scientifically, probability, scales of measurement, physics, chemistry, evolution, molecular biology, geology and astronomy, all of them liberally laced with juicy quotes from the powerhouses she's interviewed. The chapter on evolution alone is worth it, providing ample evidence to confront creationists and their intelligent-design offspring. Against the intelligent-designers' argument of "irreducible complexity"--the idea that, for example, the intricate blood-clotting mechanism found in vertebrates is just too complex to have evolved through "clunky" natural selection--she places biologist Kenneth Miller's analysis of the far cruder and simpler clotting process in invertebrates: "exactly the kind of 'imperfect and simple' system that Darwin regarded as a starting point for evolution." Dentists will love the chapter on molecular biology, which begins with a description of the scrupulous dental hygiene Angier practices as part of her never-ending battle against the oral bacteria assaulting tooth enamel. Such graphic, homely examples serve as springboards for the deeper stuff, whether it's the genetic code or the ever-expanding universe. She even makes it clear why it's hard to get your arms around the idea that galaxies are not exploding outward into space, but that space itself is stretched. Not everything is as easy as pie (or pi) to grasp, and therein lies the excitement and challenge of science, masterfully conveyed here. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

In the introductory essay of this exuberant book, Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Angier corrects two common misapprehensions about science. First, forget the "nerdy" image-science is fun, born of a child's innate curiosity. Second, it's not just for the intellectual elite-everybody does science, whether solving problems or just making observations. Thus, Angier sets out to depict the joys of science and to present them as something in which we all can participate. Chapters explore essential principles in the fields of statistics and probabilities, measurements and calibration, evolutionary and molecular biology, physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. She writes with such verve, humor, and warmth that even readers who may have flunked any of those subjects in high school will still be willing to give them a second chance. Also, she quotes frequently from interviews that she conducted with dozens of scientists, humanizing the work that they do. The style is so lively that the more serious goal of fostering public science literacy is easily reached. A similar book is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. Both are well worth reading. For all libraries.-Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

From "THE CANON" Maybe you're one of those people who hasn't clicked with science since that dreadful year of high school when you flunked physics because you showed up for the final exam an hour late, in your pajamas, and carrying an insect collection. Or maybe you fulfilled your college science requirements by taking courses like the Evolutionary Psychology of InternetDating, and you regret that you still can't tell the difference between a proton, a photon, and a moron. Or maybe you're just curiouser and curiouser and you don't know where to start. You think that the beginning might be a reasonable place, but whose beginning? Not the kiddie beginning, not the contemptuous or embarrassing or didactic digit-wagging beginning, but the beginning as an adult. The beginning as a relationship between equals, you and science. And before you raise your hands defensively, and cry, Whoa, that's not a fair competition, me versus science, let me say, It's not you against science, but you with science, you the taxpayer who supports science whether you realize it or not, you the person who does science more often than you'd suspect. Every time you try to isolate a problem with the vacuum cleaner, for example--machine heats up; machine stops running; holy hairball, when was the last timeyou changed the bag in this thing, anyway? Or when you know that if you don't stir the hollandaise sauce constantly at a hot but not boiling temperature you'll end up with a mass too lumpy to pour over your asparagus. You do science, you support science, you're baking the cake, you may as well lick the spoon. Excerpted from The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


Table of Contents

Introduction: Sisyphus Sings with a Yingp. 1
1 Thinking Scientifically: An Out-of-Body Experiencep. 18
2 Probabilities: For Whom the Bell Curvesp. 47
3 Calibration: Playing with Scalesp. 71
4 Physics: And Nothing's Plenty for Mep. 87
5 Chemistry: Fire, Ice, Spies, and Lifep. 121
6 Evolutionary Biology: The Theory of Every Bodyp. 147
7 Molecular Biology: Cells and Whistlesp. 183
8 Geology: Imagining World Piecesp. 212
9 Astronomy: Heavenly Creaturesp. 235
Referencesp. 267
Acknowledgmentsp. 280
Indexp. 282