Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 40.
- Review Date: 2007-01-08
- Reviewer: Staff
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)
Angier's latest scientific journey
Natalie Angier loves science, and she wants everyone else to love it, too. Or at least understand it better. Angier, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Woman: An Intimate Geography, shares her lifelong love in her latest, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Beginning with an essay explaining her wonderful take on why everyone should be better educated about science, she proceeds through chapters that define it (a dynamic, evolving process, not a collection of facts), describe its nature and provide primers on the five "hard" physical and life sciencesphysics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy. This is the kind of book that could easily have been dreary and dusty, but The Canon is not a staid lecture about atoms and molecules, rocks and quasars. And even the hard sciences aren't all that difficult when presented by this gifted science writer.
Keeping people interested long enough to describe the foundations of, for example, evolutionary biology, requires making a connection with them at their elemental, human core. Angier does this by celebrating the humanity of science. It's quite simple, really. Science is based on curiosity, one of our species' defining instincts. The scientific method comes easily to curious beings. Throughout the book, Angier introduces men and women of science, people who have taken their innate curiosity and turned it into their careers. Getting to know them makes understanding their work all the more fun.
The most prominent personality in The Canon is, of course, Angier herself. She is a lively tour guide with a passion for puns and quirky examples. Writing about the structure of the atom, she notes, "an atom of gold, like all atoms, is hollow, is nearly nothing, is emptier than a fraternity keg on Sunday morning." The chapter titled "Probabilities" is worth the price of the book and should be required reading for anyone trying to puzzle their way through life in this universe.
Geologist Chris Scott wishes his science textbooks had been half as well written as The Canon.