The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

Because you read this blog, you are no doubt aware that more than half of all Americans do not believe that evolution is a valid scientific explanation for how the world works, but did you know that one-third of all advanced science degrees awarded in America are earned by foreign students? These are just a few of the facts that you'll learn in the new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (Houghton Mifflin: NYC; 2007), by science writer, Natalie Angier. The Canon explains the basics of science, starting with the scientific method, probability and measurements, and then it uses these concepts to explain the sciences, moving logically from the smallest to the largest; physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy. Not only does this book cover a lot of ground, but it does so with passion infused with generous amounts of poetic prose -- which you rarely find in science writing.

Unfortunately, this 264 page book was inflated by at least 100 pages beyond what is necessary for the topics discussed due to excessively long and convoluted sentences, such as this one;

Evolutionary biologists do argue over the mechanics of evolutionary change, how fast it happens, how to measure the rate of evolutionary change, whether transformations occur gradually and cumulatively, putter and futz, generation after generation, always working to stay ahead by a nose, until, whaddya know, you're wearing a Chiquita on your beak; or whether long banks of time will pass with nothing much happening, most species maintaining themselves in a comfortable stasis until a crisis strikes -- an asteroid hits the Earth, or volcanoes dress the skies in flannel pajamas of sulfur and ash -- at which point massive evolutionary changes may arise very quickly. [pp 157-158]

The author also made liberal use of long strings of three-and four syllable words where smaller words would have provided much clearer and cleaner prose. For example, this sentence;

Perhaps nothing underscores carbon's chemical genius better than the breadth of its packaging options, from the slippery, dark, shavable format of graphite on one extreme, to fossilized starlight on the other -- translucent, mesmeric, intransigent diamond, the hardest substance known, save for a human heart grown cold. [pp 134-135]

"[F]ossilized starlight"? Uhh, hrm. " .. the hardest substance known, save for a human heart grown cold"?? Well, okay.

As I read this book, I was mystified as to the identify of its target audience. Scientists? Other professionals? Literary types? Those few relatively well-educated and well-read people out there? The general public? In short, the author's prose is a little too sparkling, witty and allusive to be easily readable, and it certainly left me wondering what on earth she was talking about on several occasions -- and I am a sophisticated and well-read scientist. In short, I found that her verbal gymnastics distracted from the topic itself, although I think that science is already a wonderful and fascinating topic without all of the flowery hyperbole.

Despite my annoyance, I stuck the book out and found that, between the deluge of witty reparte, it is very enjoyable and educational. In fact, I thought that the chapters on evolutionary and molecular biology nearly redeemed the entire book because they were the best-written and contained the least verbal fluff. Certainly, Angier's discussion of the difference between a "theory" and a "hypothesis" should be required reading in every science classroom as well as in every church in America. It also contained some interesting facts; it is possible that many people will be surprised to learn that every cell in our bodies, except for mature red blood cells, contains an exact copy of all our DNA. I also appreciated the author's careful explanation that some portions of our DNA will do one task in a particular cell type while other parts of the DNA have different roles in other cell types.

I have a few suggestions. First, as you probably guessed already, I wish that Angier's editor had kept her under tighter control during the writing process because her verbal exuberance seems to explode outwards from between the book's covers, obscuring the subject at times. Additionally, some diagrams, such as examples of scale, an atom, a molecule or two (such as DNA), basic cell structure and a tectonic plate map all would have helped improve the clarity of the book's message.

In short, some people will definitely enjoy reading this book while others will not.

Natalie Angier writes about biology for the New York Times, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, an American Association for the Advancement of Science journalism award, and other honors. She is the author of The Beauty of the Beastly, Natural Obsessions and Woman: An Intimate Geography, which was a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist, and was named Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, People Magazine, National Public Radio, the Village Voice, and Publisher's Weekly, among others. Angier lives with her husband and daughter outside Washington DC.

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How timely! Angier will appear at Cornell this afternoon to discuss the book. Angier has been designated an A.D. White Professor at large for the next several years.

By ivy privy (not verified) on 11 Sep 2007 #permalink

Well, I think you may have nailed it. I don't think scientists are necessarily the intended audience. You guys and gals already know this stuff.

I think it's written for the lit crowd who would like to understand science better. I, for one, enjoy flowery prose. It's how I make my living; though my editors tend to keep me more grounded than I'd be otherwise. Nevertheless, for people who don't find science by itself endlessly fascinating, a certain amount of panache can go a long way toward keeping their attention.

All that said, I think this was a chance for Natalie to flex her literary muscle. The New York Times runs a pretty tight ship, and although her work is almost universally good there, she doesn't often get to write the three- and four-syllable words that lexigeeks like me eat right up. Writing for a newspaper can be extremely stifling; I think this was an indulgence. And I don't see a problem with that, but you're right, it's not going to be everyone's cup of Earl Grey.

It also contained some interesting facts; it is possible that many people will be surprised to learn that every cell in our bodies, except for mature red blood cells, contains an exact copy of all our DNA.

I'd certainly be surprised to learn that, since in fact our gametes contain only half of it.

Did she really say that?

--translucent, mesmeric, intransigent diamond, the hardest substance known, save for a human heart grown cold.

Yeesh...that's not flowery hyperbole, that's just bad writing. Give me Diane Ackerman any day.

Those sentences shouldn't be let loose in the streets -- they're scaring the horses.

Ah well...good review. I probably won't buy the book, that kind of prose makes my head hurt. And it's not as if I've never written long, convoluted sentences myself, either.....

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 11 Sep 2007 #permalink

Angier reveals that her next project may be a book on atheism for children. She'll have to tame the vocabulary for that one.

By ivy privy (not verified) on 12 Sep 2007 #permalink

Flowery prose is one thing, but that first "sentence" you quote, that "oughta be taken out and shot". "Fossilized starlight" is just campy, especially for a metamorphic mineral. Not to mention that diamond may be the hardest natural substance found on Earth, but we've certainly managed to create harder stuff, starting with boron carbide.

And it's not like there aren't better metaphors waiting in the wings, e.g., micro-zircons, dating to the formation of the planet, might well be called "fossilized stardust". Diamonds are just carbon with all the black squeezed out. ;-)

By David Harmon (not verified) on 12 Sep 2007 #permalink