three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
user_rating: 
0

A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

A-The CanonDid you know that some tiny sea creatures expel their brains from their bodies once the "thinking phase" of their lives is over? Or that the tectonic plates which move continents and cause earthquakes grow at the same pace as your fingernails? Or that we are made of stardust? The Canon is an engaging review of the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy for the "nonscientist" who "can’t tell the difference between a proton, a photon, and a moron." Science writer Natalie Angier stresses that science is not a collection of facts but a way of thinking about ourselves and our surroundings. Considering that adults today know less about science than their counterparts in the 19th century, Angier provides timely information indeed.
Houghton Mifflin. 304 pages. $27. ISBN: 0618242953

Albany Times Union 4 of 5 Stars
"This enjoyable book succeeds not only because of this kind of word play, but also because it covers an amazing breadth of information … with a passion and cleverness that makes difficult concepts accessible." Michael Janairo

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite its title, The Canon isn’t just a rehash of your eighth-grade science class; it also offers some eminently practical information. Readers will find plenty of material to apply to their own lives, whether it be interpreting the results of a medical test or understanding the statistical trend behind the Sports Illustrated jinx." Roberta Kwok

Fortune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If she reaches for a joke too often instead of relying on her admirably supple prose, she’s still a matchless scientific decathlete, able to perform with equal adroitness whether examining the infinitesimal or the infinite. … My only real cavil is that she doesn’t explain often enough how science knows what it knows." Daniel Okrent

Mother Jones 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Angier makes nerdiness fun but also points out that scientific literacy is serious business. Debates about stem cells, global warming, and alternative energy might be less contentious if the scientific issues behind them were better understood." Elizabeth Gettelman

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[An] exuberant Cliffs Notes for grown-ups. … Her tête-à-têtes, which build on years of high-level access and conversation, yield particular gems when she turns to the fundamentals of the natural world." Amanda Schaffer

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The pileup of clever phrases can also become a thicket it’s hard to see your way out of. … Facts and images are sometimes thrown at you so fast and furiously that it’s like a sightseeing tour on fast-forward; the landscape blurs and you can’t smell the flowers." K. C. Cole

Chicago Sun-Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Angier is no Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould, who could convey complex ideas in elegantly simple sentences. If they are the Ernest Hemingways of science writing, Angier … is the James Joyce or Dr. Seuss." Greg Lindenberg

Critical Summary

Pulitzer Prize-winner Natalie Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography), a science journalist at the New York Times, was writing an article on whale genetics when her editor suggested that she define the term mammal for her readers and confirm that mammals are animals. That was the last straw for Angier, who nevertheless writes with respect for The Canon’s intended audience. She incorporates imaginative metaphors, concise analogies, and jokes into her writing, which result in clear and accessible explanations of complex ideas. A few critics were annoyed by the scientific "sugarcoating" and the dizzying pace of the book, but most were impressed by Angier’s lucid prose and clever word play.

Cited by the Critics

E=mc2 The Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation | David Bodanis (2000): More than a straightforward explanation of the theory of relativity, this book takes on all of modern physics in what critic Daniel Okrent calls his "favorite exegesis of complicated scientific ideas for the uncomplicated, nonscientific mind" (Fortune).

Knowledge and Wonder The Natural World as Man Knows It | Victor Weisskopf (1963): "Weisskopf’s Knowledge and Wonder covers much of the same ground as The Canon … in half as many words. Reading his little book is like taking a leisurely stroll up a hillside strewn with delights and at the top looking back to admire the view" (Los Angeles Times).