Customer Reviews of The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
Science Written the Way All Science Should Be
Writing about science is difficult, but writing about science well is a gift; one that this author possesses. As a degreed scientist, even I have problems with certain areas of science that are outside my realm (which is environmental biology) and am always looking for more information that will help me understand. This book did a wonderful job of explaining the various areas where I have difficulties (which includes most of the areas outside biology).
If you, like me, remember the talking head in science class that was speaking in tongues, you will appreciate this book. It will open up areas such as chemistry, geology, biology and others to a clearer understanding. And, understanding science is becoming more and more important in today's society as we become more technologically advanced and science oriented.
I recommend this book for everyone, including, or maybe more importantly, to the scientifically challenged. It will change the way you understand the latest in scientific news, as well as give you an all important base knowledge. And, the writing is well done, easy without being condescending, and fun.
Restoring wonder to science
The lucid prose in Natalie Angier's "The Canon" demystifies science without taking away any of its wonder. She makes the rarified accessible, but never in a "sound bite" kind of way. She relates crazy-big concepts to the more modest stuff the average reader will understand (she explained the space between an atom's nucleus and its electrons in terms of cherry pits and football fields). Her message is that science isn't just the province of wild-haired old gentlemen in lab coats-- it's humanity's inheritance, and we all have a right to it. Besides, it's just *neat.* Science isn't boring. In fact, it's delightful. If you never felt that way before, you will after reading this book.
Something else you'll come away with is a logical toolset. The chapters on probability and scale are particularly useful. Take notes as you read them.
Finally, Angier is really witty. You'll probably find yourself giggling at least once every chapter. Amusement and elucidation? Sold!
Oh-her one folly is alliteration. The woman can get drunk of strings of repeated consonants. This isn't a big enough gripe to subtract a star, though.
In the United States nowadays, a person can graduate from college having taken only a couple of token soft science classes, and these may have been adjusted (dumbed down) for humanities majors. A surprising percentage (well over half?) of our US population doesn't believe in evolution. In the industrialized world, we rank dead last for this statistic, except for Turkey, which is caught up in the Muslim version of intelligent design. The vast majority of our state and federal legislators are not educated in the sciences, but in the humanities. No wonder they are so easily misled when it comes to making informed decisions about, for example, climate change.
A decision to side with mainstream science is almost always the right decision, but it would be nice to know what mainstream science is saying (read "Discover" or other science magazines), why it is so valid, and how the scientific method works. Of course, it's not perfect - it's administered by people, with all their tendencies to delusion, misuse of data, and greed; but it's relentlessly self-correcting and it has consistently provided the most usable strategy to find out how things work.
Natalie Angier has written a book that will help us with our scientific literacy. The first three chapters cover basics about the scientific method. The human default method of decision-making, gut instinct, worked well for hunter-gatherers, but today we can do better. Read these chapters if you don't read anything else (one chapter inspired me to order a book on probabilities). The next six chapters are about the specific fields of physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology, or astronomy.
How much physics can you learn in 34 pages? Well, you get a feel for how and why electrons can be harnessed to power our homes - or perhaps you'd like to know how the Houdini-like maneuver, "quantum leap" got its name. The chapter on chemistry gives an overview of chemical bonds - why DNA has hydrogen bonds, a weaker type (so they can easily unzip for reading by messenger RNA) and stronger types of bonds are on nitrogen (and why that makes them useful as explosives). In the evolution chapter, you learn why "nothing in biology makes any sense outside of evolution," with a strong outline on the basics. Despite what you may have heard, "Natural selection is about as nonrandom a force as you can imagine." - Richard Dawkins.
In the chapter on molecular biology, you learn how a cell bristles with proteins, looking (if you could lift the lid and look inside) like a beehive or ant-bed of activity, but at fast-forward speed. This beautifully written chapter reminded me of Lewis Thomas's classic, "Lives of a Cell" from 1974. Geologists immediately descend onto the site when a new tunnel is blasted through a hillside. We live on a planet that records its own history and each stone is a potential Rosetta stone. Astronomy is among the most popular of sciences, "chaster than other sciences, purer of heart and freer of impurities, mutagens, teratogens, and animal testing." It answers the eternal questions: Who are we? Where do we come from?
Each chapter covers enough basics to be able to provide a strong finish. For the scientifically challenged, for the reader who needs a science booster, or for the confirmed science nut like me, don't let this book get away. It is even available in audio so you can buff up your education the easy way.
Now for the disclaimer: The 5 stars is for the subject matter. Her deliver is "too cute" to the point of distraction. The last book I recall of this type was Bill Bryson's - "A Short History of Nearly Everything." His book doesn't suffer from maladies of this sort and is superior.
Should be required reading
As a working scientist and a citizen of the world, I cannot recommend Natalie Angier's, "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science" highly enough for not only non-scientists and the scientifically illiterate, but also for those working in science who have forgotten the wonder and joy in their profession.
From the biggest questions about the nature of the universe to more personal questions concerning humankind's origins and internal workings, Angier brings not only her journalistic experience and exuberant curiosity to her subjects, she also interviews experts in the field who bring their own authority and creativity in explaining both concepts that are fundamental to our understanding of the physical world and the latest advancements that challenge and further our current knowledge.
An intelligent reader may now gain the scientific literacy necessary for life in the twenty-first century between the covers of one book, written in a playful, vivid, conversational style that nonetheless manages to impart important concepts without oversimplifying them. Natalie Angier has done the world a great service by bringing science in an accessible, entertaining form to a general audience. She has done her job, and now it is the public's turn to do theirs and fulfill its responsibility to educate and enlighten itself.
What a great book! Every sentence is crafted as though it were to be read aloud ... and when you're done, almost as bonus, you realize that this was not just a joy to read. You realize that you suddenly GET chemistry. You really GET what's at the heart of geology. What fun to be able to appreciate the essentials of the major sciences, and not just in a surfacey way, but with real richness and depth, and to do it all in such a literary way. A wonderful read.