Mr. Zuska came home this evening, tired after a long week of work. We looked at each other and said “Pizza”. Which turned out to be a good thing, because when the pizza delivery guy showed up and I went to pay him, I found a package on my front porch from the good folks at Seed (specifically, Jennifer – thanks, Jennifer!) A FREE BOOK! Yay! What’s not to love about free books?
And this one turned out to be written by Natalie Angier, whom I adore. Angier, you will recall, is the author of Woman: An Intimate Geography, which was the subject of my first Friday Bookshelf. The new book is titled The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.
What I’m writing here can’t be called a review since all I’ve read so far is the introductory chapter (but I devoured that, along with my pizza). When I’ve finished the book I’ll revisit it here and let you know what I think of the whole thing. But I wanted to share a few thoughts.
First, other reviewers’ complaints: in two overall positive reviews, the reviewers complain about her prose:
Angier’s writing can also be overadorned with extended metaphors that obscure rather than explain
…her prose is a blooming, buzzing profusion of puns, rhymes, wordplay, wisecracks and Erma-Bombeckian quips about the indignities of everyday life. Angier’s language is always clever, and sometimes witty, but “The Canon” would have been better served if her Inner Editor had cut the verbal gimmickry by a factor of three…The deeper problem is a misapplication of the power of the verbal analogy in scientific exposition.
Pinker compares Angier’s supposedly inferior use of metaphor to the proper use of metaphor as illustrated by an example from Richard Dawkins. This is science writing, after all, and one is not allowed to use metaphor just to beautify the writing. Or to make science sound like poetry. Clever metaphors are acceptable only for strictly pedagogical purposes, my children. The evolution of the poker face: good. Comparing carbon whimsically to an egg carton: bad.
Pardon me if I hold off accepting Pinker’s judgment till I’ve had a chance to read a bit more. I liked the intro just fine. I can’t help thinking: poker face = male metaphor and egg carton = female metaphor. And then I can’t help wondering: does that affect one’s judgment? Does it matter that the latter was used by a woman, the former by a man? I think of my PhD committee member, who complained about my “flowery” language in my dissertation (I’m still not sure what he meant). If a woman sets out to write about science, and make it accessible, and uses language that’s not dry and dull, but rich and descriptive…and if she’s successful at it…maybe they just have to find some nit to pick.
But I really don’t like the way Pinker compares her to Erma Bombeck as a put-down. It’s insulting to Angier, and it’s insulting to Bombeck, a woman who wanted to be a writer from her earliest days, who had her first newspaper job at age 15, and who campaigned for the ERA. Erma Bombeck may not be your cup of tea, but for several decades she was the wry voice of the American middle-class housewife. To use her as a snipingly dismissive insult is, in a sense, spitting upon the unnoticed and unrewarded labor of all those women who tended the homes – and the ones who still do. To compare Angier to Bombeck is to say, “your writing is no better than a bunch of old wives’ tales”.
Maybe I’m just an overly sensitive, grouchy old humorless hairy-legged feminist. (Though I did shave just the day before yesterday.) But that’s what sucks about patriarchy: you’re never entirely sure if Steven Pinker just doesn’t like Natalie Angier’s writing style or if Steven Pinker is evaluating Natalie Angier more harshly because she’s a woman writing about man stuff.
Anyway, here’s what I liked from the introduction: Natalie Angier totally gets it about the Joy of Science. She loves science, and it shows. And she wants everybody else to love it, too. Natalie Angier is the evangelist of science.
In sum, I’m not sure that knowing about science will turn you into a better citizen, or win you a more challenging job, or prevent the occasional loss of mental faculties culminating in the unfortunate purchase of a pair of white leather pants…you don’t need to know about science. You also don’t need to go to museums or listen to Bach or read a single slyly honied Shakespeare sonnet. You don’t need to visit a foreign country or hike a desert canyon or go out on a cloudless, moonless night and get drunk on star champagne. How many friends do you need?
In place of civic need, why not neural greed? Of course you should know about science, as much as you’ve got the synaptic space to fit. Science is not just one thing, one line of reasoning or a boxable body of scholarship, like, say, the history of the Ottoman Empire. Science is huge, a great ocean of human experience; it’s the product and point of having the most deeply corrugated brain of any species this planet has spawned. If you never learn to swim, you’ll surely regret it; and the sea is so big, it won’t let you forget it.
Of course you should know about science, for the same reason Dr. Seuss counsels his readers to sing with a Ying or play Ring the Gack: These things are fun, and fun is good.
There’s a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids like science museums. Science is fun. Not just gee-whizbang “watch me dip this rose into liquid nitrogen and then shatter it on the floor” fun, although it’s that, too. It’s fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun. Understanding how things work feels good. Look no further – there’s your should.