Adventures in Ethics and Science

Book review: The Canon.

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The average American’s lack of scientific literacy has become a common complaint, not only among scientists but also among those who see our economic prospects as a nation linked to our level of scientific know-how. Yet somehow, science has become an area of learning where it’s socially acceptable to plead ignorance. Adults leave the house without even a cocktail-party grasp of the basics they presumably learned in middle school and high school science classes, and the prospects of herding them back into a science classroom to give it another go seem pretty remote.

Natalie Angier’s new book The Canon seeks to provide an audience of adults with the central ideas in physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy, as well as a reasonable handle on the activity of science more generally. Angier is not presenting a textbook for a survey course, but rather a taste of how these different scientific disciplines understand various chunks of the world we live in. The audience she is trying to reach may fear science, or remember it as boring, or have no good story about how it connects with everyday life. Angier is relentless in identifying science as it crosses our paths, and it is clear that she is taken with the beauty in the scientists’ accounts of their phenomena. What is less clear is whether Angier’s rhapsody to science will really engage her intended audience.


Quite sensibly, before diving into subject matter from a particular area of science, Angier examines the project of science more generally, drawing on interviews with a number of working scientists in different fields. Science, she notes, is not a body of facts but a way of attacking problems and thinking about the world. (It is striking, by the way, that a number of the scientists she interviews note that they had high school teachers who presented science as if it were a boring body of facts — even scientists have to overcome the mistaken impressions given by certain science teachers.) This activity is spurred by a desire to understand how the universe (or some particular piece of it) works, and is premised on the conviction that the universe is intelligible.

Of course, believing that the universe can be understood doesn’t mean that getting this understanding is easy. Angier notes that, given the great complexity of the phenomena, scientists must learn to isolate variables and ask one question at a time. They must find ways to identify and overcome the biases they bring to their observations and interpretations. They must recognize the instances in which their commonsense intuitions about the workings of the physical world can lead them astray. And, they need to remember that the knowledge their careful efforts produce is an approximation of truth, not a complete picture that answers all of our questions.

After this overview, Angier devotes a chapter to probabilities and developing a feel for likelihoods. The scientists she interviews walk us through coin-tossing exercises to help us understand that real randomness may not look like randomness to the untrained eye; back-of-the-envelope guesstimation exercises that rely on order-of-magnitude guesses and logical assumptions about how different variables are related; examinations of how sample spaces matter in interpreting probabilities; and, of course, the difference between causation and correlation. She follows this with a chapter called “Calibration” that looks at scaling of distances, masses, volumes, and times. With the preliminaries out of the way, Angier dives into the subject matter of particular scientific fields.

Evaluating these chapters is a tricky business. The title of the book suggests that these chapters will contain the fundamental principles universally recognized as being at the core of each of the scientific fields she discusses. This is something I’m competent to determine for fields I’ve mastered (chemistry and to a lesser extent evolutionary biology), but I probably couldn’t say whether chapters on physics, geology, or astronomy really capture the central concerns of these field, let alone explain them accurately.

In the chemistry chapter, Angier does single out the concepts I’m inclined to view as canonical — atomic structure, its connection to intramolecular bonding, the basics of intermolecular forces (and their connection to the material properties of the substances so bonded), phases of matter, chemical reactions, and a bit about the role thermodynamics plays in chemical transformations and changes of state. The explanations of these concepts are generally pretty clear, although there are places I’d get nitpicky — being clear about the distinction between chemical and physical changes, for example, and leaning less heavily on the mental imagery of “orbits” and “shells” within atoms. As well, Angier doesn’t so much explain chemical reactions as give numerous examples of chemical reactions with relevance to everyday life. While interesting, these examples don’t really convey what’s happening when molecules react.

The chapter on evolutionary biology (a subject with which I’m familiar though not so expert), Angier gives clear explanations of the basic ideas. She explains descent with modification drawing on some nice examples from the animal kingdom. She also dips into convergent evolution, taxonomy, and a discussion of where fossils come from (or why so many organisms don’t leave convenient fossilized remains). The structure of the chapter, however, is driven by the likely context of a cocktail-party discussion of evolutionary theory: the current “debate” in the larger American society between evolutionary theory and creationism or intelligent design. While it seems useful to include in this chapter answers to the common criticisms of “Darwinism” (a term Angier herself uses in the chapter), the logical organization of the chapter felt off as a result as Angier presented detailed evidence that supports evolutionary theory before laying out precisely what that theory says. Perhaps saving the objections and responses for later in the chapter (where she includes a lovely discussion of Ken Miller’s response to Michael Behe’s claim that clotting is an instance of an irreducibly complex system) might have made more sense. Then again, given my familiarity with the basics of evolutionary biology, I am not the target audience for this chapter. It’s quite possible that at least some of the readers for whom Angier wrote this book need the evolution versus creationism battle to motivate them to care about what evolutionary theory is about.

Astronomy is an area where I’m well aware of my ignorance* (sorry, Mom!), so I don’t feel I have much basis to judge whether Angier picks the right ideas to discuss, or whether she does them justice. However, I found her explanation of the Big Bang, the expanding universe, and the sorts of evidence astronomers can get their hands on (given that they manifestly cannot get their hands on most of their objects of study) clear and engaging. As well, her discussion of the life cycles of stars, the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion, and the tricky balance necessary to keep a star from collapsing, tie nicely into basic ideas from chemistry and physics discussed in earlier chapters. One of the nicest things about the astronomy chapter is the identification of hurdles to getting a really intuitive grasp of the phenomena. For one thing, our observational information is traveling such vast distances that we end up with a serious tape-delay, meaning we’re observing past states of distant objects. For another, despite the fact that the view from Earth makes it look like the galaxies are rushing away from us, astronomers see the universe itself as expanding (to where?) so that everything is rushing apart from everything else, and galaxies are moving with space rather than through it.

Angier’s book leaves me feeling less clueless about astronomy, but again, I worry that I’m not quite the reader she had in mind when she wrote it. The scaffolding on which she hangs the phenomena (chemistry and a wee bit of physics) is more familiar to me than it might be to the average non-scientist. And, I have long felt as though I ought to take steps to get right with astronomy. In other words, I’m motivated to hang on through some challenging details.

What I’m less motivated to hang on through, however, is some of Angier’s language. As much as she is taken with the beauty of the science, she seems to love her strings of words even more. I have nothing against beautiful prose, but some of it may well get in the way of communication. For example, Angier writes:

[Y]ou needn’t be the hominid descendant of a lungfish or the intellectual decendant of the Greek mathematician Euclid to realize that the structure of space-time has a distinct saddleback geometry to it.

This is on page 27, by the way, before biology or astronomy are even on the table. In a book where, purportedly, Angier made a conscious decision to avoid structuring information in glossary form, she throws around a lot of words that will send conscientious readers running for dictionaries. The readers who are not so conscientious may just tune out. And even when the words in her sentences don’t require a check of their definitions, some of her asides are puzzling. For instance, in the astronomy chapter she writes:

The expanding universe is not that different from an expanding balloon, except that the universe is bigger, colder, and darker, and that it won’t pop even if you put it in a cage with a pair of mating ferrets.

It’s hard to know what to make of this mention of mating ferrets, but it makes me wonder about the aftermath of birthday parties in the Angier household.

The wildly gyrating sentence structure also leans heavily on alliteration, puns, and pop culture references (some of which, I suspect, will be stale before the book comes out in paperback). I understand that humor is one of Angier’s strategies to draw in the reader who is scared of science, but I’m not convinced it’s a winning strategy. Even for those not driven away by the puns and pop culture, they are still left to navigate some long and winding sentences to uncover the scientific ideas. Presenting the ideas clearly (in short, direct sentences), then illustrating them with a handful of examples, might make them more accessible.

Something else that would help, especially in the chemistry chapter, is some pictures. Chemists lean heavily on visual representations in describing their objects of study and the ways they interact with each other. Angier tries to accomplish the job with words alone when visuals are arguably part of the canon of chemistry. (The other discipline-specific chapters might well cry for visual representations in the same way, but I don’t have the expertise to assert that they do.) While preferring words over mathematical representations seems a good choice (given that the science-phobes are frequently math-phobes, too), opting out of images is a choice that seems likely to lose a significant chunk of Angier’s intended audience, the non-scientists who happen to be visual learners.

I applaud Angier for her ambition in undertaking this project, and I admire her infatuation with science because it is fun rather than simply because it is good for us. However, I fear that her infatuation with language leaves us with a book in which she offers love poetry to science while the intended audience, forgotten, watches awkwardly and then slinks away.

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*Except, thanks to my coursework on the history of cosmology, I’m really good with obsolete models of planetary motion.

Comments

  1. #1 Andrew Dickson
    July 23, 2007

    I shall seek out this book to see how it is.

    Another fun book that covers similar ground — with a sense of humor and a feeling for the vagaries of scientists — is Bill Bryson’s, A short history of nearly everything.

    I — a marine chemist — enjoyed Bryson’s book, both the parts I knew (which he got mostly right) and the parts I didn’t, but I share your concern that we are not, perhaps, the hoped for audience for such books.

    I am reminded of a book of Ilya Prigogine’s (From Being to Becoming) which suggested on the back cover — as I recall — that it was aimed at the general reader with a background in quantum mechanics!

  2. #2 KevinC
    July 24, 2007

    One would never get a science paper published if it did not have figures and/or tables. I would think that they would be even more important in science writing for laymen. The flowery prose in the few portions you reproduced reminds me of the Roman’s like Virgil who thought how you wrote it was more important than what you really said.

  3. #3 Dirk
    July 25, 2007

    As a science writer with a manuscript on addiction medicine currently floating free of a publisher, I would note that the question of whether to cite or not to cite for a lay audience is a tough one. I chose to go without in-text citations, fearing that heavy annotation would make a scientific subject seem all the more daunting to non-professionals.

    Kudos to Angier for trying to walk the line between textbook and simplistic cheerleading. Science writing for lay audiences demands a different approach than article writing for professional journals. Half the reading audience thinks you’re being too technical, the other half insists you’ve oversimplified.

    Dirk Hanson