The Canon

Natalie Angier is an experienced science writer for The New York Times who spent part of her youth in New Buffalo, Mich., and who wrote for the Michigan Daily while attending the University of Michigan. She also is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and numerous other honors. As the title suggests, her latest book is not an exhaustive examination of science, but instead touches on some of the primary principles in physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy.

The tone of Angier’s book is conversational, and it is littered with references to popular culture, along with occasional jokes and puns. The book is aimed at adults who, in their younger years, may have dismissed science as boring or incomprehensible, but who are now wiser and willing to give it a second look.

The opening sections of the book cover how the scientific process works and how scientists think. These sections convey to the reader that science is not just facts, but a process. Also included are informative sections on probability and calibration, with the latter featuring the author’s own "powers of 10" journey from the subatomic to the universal.

The book briefly covers key concepts of physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy. It also contains many ideas for presenting material that would be valuable to educators attempting to explain science phenomena.

Readers with a background in science may find Angier’s approach a bit tedious. She also comes close to anthropomorphism, as evidenced in the following discussion on ionic bonds:

Consider, then, the lovely symmetry of salt. On one side we have sodium, a soft metal with the silvery sheen of herring scales. Sodium has eleven electrons, two in the innermost orbit, eight in the next, and, in orbit number three, a solitary sailor with a distinct propensity for jumping ship. Across the aisle, we see chlorine, a corrosive, greenish yellow gas. The outer shell of chlorine, as I mentioned earlier, is one electron shy of satiety, and so chlorine leans toward mean, toward stealing electrons where it can.

At many points in the book, Angier’s style is both amusing and enlightening, reflecting her degree in English literature (with minors in physics and astronomy) from Barnard College in New York City. But there are times that her prose falls flat and readers may become bogged down by her somewhat meandering style. Some concepts are simply better suited to charts and diagrams. Certainly, no one could compare this to a dry textbook, but her liberal use of pop culture references can sometimes confuse readers who may not be familiar with, say, 1960s situation comedies: "Quantity notwithstanding, a genuine quantum leap is qualitatively spectacular, a bit of ‘Bewitched’ without the insufferable husband."

The first chapter is among the best in the book. It contains material from Angier’s interviews with leading scientists, including Scott Strobel, Deborah Nolan, Donald Sadoway, David Wake, Kip Hodges, Cynthia Wolberger and other brilliant minds at some of the nation’s foremost universities. These conversations yield nuggets of insight.

Particularly enjoyable is Strobel’s contention that the game Mastermind is "a microcosm for how science works":

In Mastermind, he explains, you try to divine your opponent’s hidden sequence of four colored pegs by shuffling your own colored pegs among peg holes. If you guess a correct color in the correct position, your opponent inserts a black peg on his side of the board; a correct color in an incorrect position gets you a white peg; and the wrong color for any position earns you no peg at all. Your goal is to end up with four black pegs on your adversary’s end in as few rounds as possible.

‘If you’re trying to pose a question in a way that gets you data you can interpret, you want to isolate a variable,’ Strobel says. ‘In science we take great pains to design experiments that ask only one question at a time. You isolate a single variable, and then you see what happens when you change that variable alone, while doing your best to keep everything else in the experiment unchanged.’

Angier’s book is a good read — one that would appeal to those with a passing interest in science rather than those steeped in it. The latter reader, however, would enjoy her interviews and enthusiasm for science despite the lack of depth. At worst, science-types just might learn some new techniques for making themselves understood when
talking to the rest of us.