The Canon by Natalie Angier

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The Canon by Natalie Angier

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Angier presents the true basics of science, while not losing sight of the awe-inspiring wonder of the world. It can provide a sound basis for further exploration to those with very little knowledge of science. If you are an arts-educated science-phobic American who considers science boring and who likes his reading peppered liberally with bright NewYorkish witticisms, go an buy it now. Anybody else should borrow it first, or have a pre-purchase trial read as the style is a dazzling mixture of acrobatic analogies, arty allusions and clever quips and might be not to everybody's taste.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571239726

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In the introduction to The Canon Angier laments modern science illiteracy, and even more so, she regrets the way science lost the cool factor it might have had in the time of Apollos & Sputniks. It is, apparently, now considered a thing for kids and a small proportion of grown-up (but possibly maladjusted) eggheads. She then proceeds to remedy this sorry state of affairs and present what she distilled from numerous interviews with scientists and mountains of research: the canonical basics of science for modern times. She starts with the most important – and often overlooked in formal education – idea that science is a way of thinking, a live process and not only the body of facts and theories that are result of this process. A very decent introduction to numeracy and statistics comes next, followed by succinct and informative introductions to physics, chemistry, life sciences (evolutionary and molecular biology), geology and cosmology.

Oh, I so wanted to love this book! It's based on a premise that I wholeheartedly endorse and it is very much needed – and the massive popularity of Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything shows that the need is recognised among the reading public as well as among the scientists.

Natalie Angier is well placed to write such a book. She studied physics and English, works as a science journalist for the New York Times and she approaches her task with intelligence, zeal, enthusiasm and huge amounts of determination to make her subject interesting, nay, awe-inspiringly fascinating; sexy, graspable and relevant.

And when it works, it works a treat: a water molecule (and the nature of hydrogen bond) explained in terms of Mickey-mouse head (ears are the hydrogens y'see) will probably stay in my memory forever. Her physics chapter is excellent and contains the best explanation of the first law of thermodynamics (and its practical and philosophical implications) I have read; while her ability to whittle down the detailed and descriptive miasmas of chemistry was most admirable. The discussion of the meaning of “theory” in science was also excellent and, appropriately for current US dark-ages-backlash, well placed in the chapter dealing with evolutionary biology.

If you are even semi-literate scientifically, you won't find much new material in this book: it does fulfil the promise of its title. Angier's ability to really concentrate on The Basics and not let herself get distracted by the temptingly wondrous detail or theoretical asides gives The Canon a clarity and a staying power and justifies the title very well indeed.

I can only wish that the same pencil that pared down the content to such a crystalline core had been also used to shear the stylistic ornamentation that that core is adorned with. Alas, stylistically The Canon is a veritable fountain of dazzling fireworks of clever witticisms and oh-aren't-we-so-intelligent asides. One set of Mickey Mouse ears every few pages is fine and can lighten the tone, but such analogies and anthropomorphisms, pithy comments and dry quips crop up on every page, sometimes in every paragraph, paraphrased and reinforced with a frequency that becomes tiring.

I would also say (perhaps at the risk of underestimating the arts-literacy of Angier's target) that many of the cultural references won't be an immediately accessible part of an intellectual frame of reference of most readers. Angier recognises it occasionally herself, and once even supplies a footnote explaining her quip. Clearly, a stylistic device – however brilliant - that requires a footnote defies the purpose of a stylistic device (cf the allusion to a Tom Stoppard play in the chapter on probabilities – very relevant, and entertaining, for those who can remember this endless sequence of heads at the beginning of Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern, especially in the rather wonderful film version with fantastic Tim Roth - but you have to admit, rather distracting, even if done in a bracket). And occasionally it all goes rather surreal – I defy anybody to even try to envisage origami animals made from butter and clay.

Add to it an endless supply of American references and New Yorkisms and the ideas can get seriously obscured. This, obviously won't be a problem for a US reader, but a non-American one might struggle with all the Skivvies, Sheetrocks and Tinkertoys, all in one paragraph; with an assumption that everybody will be closely familiar with the street plan of New York and with phrases like Objective reality is cold and abstract, subjective reality is warm and Rockwell. And what the dickens could possibly be meant by a Vin Diesel line of lawn tools

Thus, the conversational "columnist" style of The Canon can be a double-edged sword. Endless displays of gushy cleverness get tiring and the breathless attempts to sex-up the subject matter backfire. Instead of illustrating the points, those witticisms may confuse and distract from the content.

Many times I felt my train of thought stopped, either to admire the author's intelligence or to decode the joke: You can't build a perpetual motion machine that will keep clicking and tocking (...) though Leo only knows that thousands of humans from da Vinci fore and aft have tried. They fought the second law, the law won. Now, who's Leo? Why fore and aft? And do I really need to let my already overtaxed brain go off on a tangent trying to recall which of The Clash albums contained that tune? And what were we on, kindly remind me, the second law of thermodynamics, wasn't it?

I am devoting so much space to Angier's style toolkit because that is what makes or breaks popular science books for any given reader. It's not enough to say this one is suitable for people without any background in science (as it eminently is), it's also important to see what other assumptions the author makes about their readers' frame of reference. The comparison of a mosquito to a Giacometti or protein's structure to Jean Arp is only going to work if “Giacometti” and “Arp” efficiently bring up images of a particular style. It will be lost on (and likely to distract) those who never have heard of the sculptors.

And yet, when The Canon succeeds, it does it so well: it deals with the true basics while not losing the sight of the Meaning of It All (the awe-inspiring wonder of the world) and it can provide a sound basis for further exploration to those with very little knowledge of science indeed.

If you are an arts-educated and science-phobic American who considers science boring and who likes his reading peppered liberally with bright NewYorkish witticisms, buy the book now. You'll love it. Anybody else should borrow it first, or consider having a pre-purchase trial read to see what the style does for them.

Cautiously recommended, with 3½ personal stars and 4 Bookbag stars (add a half if you are an American, and make it a full 5 if you are a New Yorker).

Thanks to the publishers for sending the Bookbag this volume.

If you like books that show not only what the science discovers but how and by whom it's done you might like In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind or Your Inner Fish. The author of the last one was one of the Angier's sources.

If you are interested in the history of Earth as a planet, as well as life on it, you should read Ted Nield's Supercontinent.

The people involved in The Edge are doing their best to create the Third Culture which bridges the arts-science divide. Some of their ideas are recounted in What is Your Dangerous Idea?

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