The Canon by Natalie Angier

The Powers That Be at Seed were kind enough to send all the ScienceBlogs bloggers copies of the new book by Natalie Angier, The Canon, which is being pushed fairly hard by the publisher. I've been reading a lot more pop-science stuff recently, for self-interested reasons, and this was pretty attractive, so I carried it around for a while, reading bits and pieces in restaurants while Kate was away, and eventually finished it during our Michigan vacation.

The book is subtitled "A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science," and Angier has set herself a large task: to present the essential elements of a wide range of sciences. She sought out a huge array of prominent scientists, and asked them for the most central elements of their discipline. As she puts it in the introduction, she's trying to determine

What would a nonscientists need to know about sciece to qualify as scientifically seasoned? If you, Dr. Know, had to name a half-dozen things that you wish everybody understood about your field, the six big, bold, canonical concepts that even today bowl you over with their beauty, what would they be?... What would it take for a nonscientist to impress you at a cocktail party, to awaken in you the sensation that hmm, this person is not a buffoon?

Her aim is to try to distill this material for the major "hard" sciences, and she presents chapters on Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, and Astronomy, along with three general chapters on scientific reasoning and techniques. And she sets out to do all this with an absolutely minimal amount of math. This is a pretty tall order.

So how does she do?

Angier's regular job is as a biology writer for the New York Times, and this books is very much pitched at the Times readership, or at least at the readership they generally imagine for themselves-- generally well educated in terms of literature and politics, but not really familiar with science. As a result, the book is replete with references to high culture, with a smattering of pop culture. For example, when she's talking about scientific scales and basic math, she offers this explanation of scientific notation:

To gain a quick grip on things by way of scientific notation, it helps to memorize those superscripts that crrespond to numbers you know. A thousand with its three zeros is 103, a hundred thousand 105, a million 106, a billion 109, a trillion 1012, a googol 10100, a google a search engine and transitive verb, and Gogol a nineteenth-century Russian novelist. You can see, then, why "exponential growth" is so pushy. The exponent of a billion may be only three more than that for a million, but that cute little three means, I raise you a thousandfold, dear.

This passage nicely demonstrates the style, which is consistently upbeat and breezy, and also one of the big knocks on the book that I've read in various reviews. I've heard a number of people complain that she's just trying too hard: every paragraph, and nearly every sentence contains some little flourish-- a joke, a literary allusion, a pun. It's all a bit too much, they say.

The problem is, many of the people I've heard this from are people who I think aren't trying hard enough. Yes, Angier works very hard to pep up her writing, but I think people underestimate how much of that you really need to do in order to get science across.

She's trying very hard, I agree, but she's trying hard to convey enthusiasm for science, and a sense of fun, and I think she does a better job of that than a lot of people give her credit for. Then again, I'm a sucker for highly referential writing-- David Foster Wallce, Jasper Fforde, Dennis Miller back when he was funny-- so I may just be more disposed to like this book than many others.

The other complaint I've encountered is that there isn't all that much scientific meat. It's all bubbly and effervescent and full of cool little facts, but it doesn't really get down and dirty explaining the evidence and the process of science. That's true as far as it goes, but I'll also note that the book is distinctly lacking in discussion of the transformative power of a personal relationship with Jesus.

Which is to say, it's lacking in thick meaty slabs of science because it's not being written for Science People, any more than it's being written for born-again Christians. The whole point of the enterprise is to pitch science to people who aren't already interested in science. In a certain sense, it's a mistake to send copies to be reviewed on ScienceBlogs. The actual target audience for this book is not the readership of Seed, but the readership of Crooked Timber or Acephalous: bright, educated people who are not ordinarily interested in science. This isn't pop-science for people who normally buy pop-science books, it's pop-science for people who normally buy critically acclaimed mainstream literary fiction.

This, of course, means that I'm not actually in a terribly good position to review the book, because I'm not really her target audience (other than the referntial humor thing). I can really only guess how it would work for someone who is in the target demographic, but short of taking my copy over to the English department and forcing some faculty to read it, I can't make any definitive statement.

With that caveat out of the way, I think it works pretty well. In terms of other existing science books, it's probably closest to Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, but they're doing subtly different things. Bryson goes into more detail, and covers more material, but then he's writing a sprawling and self-indulgent survey of all of science. Angier's book is less detailed, but she's trying to move faster, and keep things lively. Bryson writes with his customary tone of bemusement and befuddlement, while Angier is trying to convey a sense of the passion that scientists have for their work, and practically throws sparks from every page. Bryson's book is probably a better fit for the ScienceBlogs audience, in the end, but I think Angier does a good job with what she's trying to do.

In terms of coverage, I would, of course, like to see more physics. She overemphasizes particle physics, as is typical of popular science writing, and scants AMO, but I'm more or less used to that. Biology also gets two full chapters, but given that her day job is writing about biology, I suppose that's only to be expected.

All in all, I think this is a good book, though perhaps not for the people who are likely to read this blog. If you need a birthday gift for that lit-major sibling, though, this might be a good possibility.

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Can I recommend this book to someone who read and enjoyed Bill Bryson's, or would it seem like a step backward?

Can I recommend this book to someone who read and enjoyed Bill Bryson's, or would it seem like a step backward?

That's a little tough to say. They seem fairly complementary to me-- Bryson talks more about the history and personalities, while Angier talks more about the current state of science.

I enjoyed both, and I think they're different enough that it wouldn't feel like repetition. If nothing else, the first three chapters are different than anything in Bryson's book, and it's probably worth reading The Canon just for that.

Are people who aren't interested in science going to pick this up, though? It's shelved in the General Science section at Borders; are those people even looking at that section?

Are people who aren't interested in science going to pick this up, though?

I think that's the reason for the big public push for the book-- it got a prominent review in the Times, there have been ads for it all over the place, etc. They're hoping to get a bit of buzz going, and get people who don't read science books to pick it up.

I teach an intro college science course entitled "Understanding Science" that attempts to do something similar to what this book sounds like it's doing - would it be appropriate for a college level survey class do you think?