Angier: The Canon (2)

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Natalie Angier, The Canon : A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007. 304 pages.

I picked this book because it was described as a science primer for adults who weren’t paying attention in high school. Sounded right up my alley--I expected to absolutely love this one!

Unfortunately, Angier played on several of my pet peeves in science writing. First off, the chapters are way too long. I’m really happy in the 10-20 page range, and once I get over 25 I begin to get really impatient and start counting down how much I have left. She started out fine: her introduction and first three chapters (covering scientific thinking, statistics, and calibration) all stay under thirty. But then, the physics chapter clocks in at 34. and, the chemistry and evolutionary biology at 36. Next, things calm down again with 29 pages of molecular biology, 23 pages of geology, but astronomy, the final chapter, gets back up to 32 pages. So that bugged me, but I could deal with it.

Except, Angier’s writing style is, well, neurotic to say the least. I should have been warned by the subtitle, A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, but somehow I didn’t realize she’d use the same effusiveness when describing complicated (to me, anyway) chemistry concepts. Here’s a random taste from that chapter:

The supple power of the molecular bond that gives us edible carbon fare and breathable oxygen pairs is crucial to life, but a covalent commitment can still be too ham-fisted when life demands Nijinsky. Here the secondary bonds come into play, and weakness becomes a source of strength.

Her writing often reminded me of my two-year-old niece playing with new sounds; she just gets caught up in her own world play and I’m sitting there just waiting for her to get back on topic. For me, the most important skill a science writer possesses is the ability to convey complicated ideas in a simple manner. Angier has the opposite ability: she makes the simplest things sound complicated. This makes things less than fun to read. She also does the constant attempts at lame humor thing I’ve noticed in more than one science book, which gets old very quickly.

Oh, and the entire evolutionary biology chapter is only focused on convincing the reader that evolution is a legitimate scientific theory. To me, this felt really redundant, although apparently way more Americans than I thought don’t realize that evolution is true.

And there’s no conclusion! The book cuts off abruptly at the end of the astronomy chapter, which makes it feel unfinished. So, while I enjoyed the opening chapters, things quickly went downhill, and I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you can handle ridiculous prose. Sure, there were moments where I learned interesting and important stuff, and there were even some moments when I enjoyed the wacky writing, but these moments didn’t make up for my dread every time I reached for the book.

Favorite Passages

"Another time, while I was standing around talking to a perfectly pleasant couple at a friend’s wedding near Sacramento--he a lawyer, she a businesswoman--I mentioned evolution as a jumping-off point to another subject I had in mind. My conversation partners stopped me right there. 'So,' said the lawyer, 'I take it this means you have no doubt that evolution is for real?'
'Um,' I replied, staring into the crystal depths of my champagne glass, which was, tragically empty at the moment. 'About as much doubt as I have that, if I were to let go of this glass, gravity would pull it to the floor, it would shatter to pieces, and the bride would be pretty upset because it’s Waterford.'"

"This is the beauty of power of the cell, and one of the core insights to emerge from modern biology: A cell confronts the harshness and instability of the outside world by making itself a haven. A cell contains all the tools it needs to preserve order and stability within its borders, to keep its interior recesses warm and wet and chemically balanced. In this equilibrated, levelheaded setting, the cell's vast labor force of proteins and enzymes will operate at peak performance, and so sustain the cell in its state of mild grace. There is nothing more natural than a cell; the natural world, after all, is full of them. At the same time, a cell is the ultimate act of artifice, a climate-controlled limousine with cushioned seats and a private bar, cruising through a mad desert storm."

"Scientists have struggled mightily to impress on the public that the nature-nurture 'debate' is dead, that it was an unscientific non-issue from the start, something pumped up and sustained by a media ever in love with conflict and horse races. 'It’s unfortunate that there’s a linguistic similarity between the words "nature" and "nurture,"' Stephen Jay Gould once lamented to me, for the euphonia alone 'has helped keep this ill-formulated and misguided debate alive.' You can’t uncouple nature from nurture, he and other scientists insist, any more than you can uncouple a rectangle’s length from its width."

"For geologists, every stone is a potential Rosetta stone, a key to a milestone moment in Earth’s history, and to accompany a geologist through a park is to leave no stone unturned or outcrop unlearned."

"Astronomy is so easy to love. It is filled with outrageous magic that also happens to be true: novas and supernovas and pulsar stars that spin and click and are as thick as an atomic heart, as thick as Joyce’s Muster Mark; and those thicker, darker collapsed star carcasses we call black holes, which are so dense that even light cannot escape their gravitational grip; and quasars, celestial furnaces at the edge of the known universe that are the size of stars but as luminous as entire galaxies; and theoretical plausibilities like extra dimensions beyond the four we know, or the creasing of space-time into shortcut “wormholes,” which, if they exist, would be the equivalent of time-travel machines. Astronomy is about the heavens, the divinest of the final frontiers, and the presumed zip code of Ra, Vishnu, Zeus, Odin, Tezcatlipoca, Yahweh, Our Father Who Art In, and a host of other holy hosts; and that religious resonance markedly broadens the discipline’s appeal, making it feel both cozier and more profound than it might otherwise."

-- Notes by EVA

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