Friday Bookshelf: The Canon

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:

Publisher's Weekly on the Amazon site

Angier's writing can also be overadorned with extended metaphors that obscure rather than explain

Steven Pinker in the NYTimes

...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 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.

Amen, Natalie.

More like this

Hadn't you heard? According to the Scientists' Convention of 1903, scientific discourse must now be carried out in a dry manner that couldn't possibly hurt people's feelings. Look at all those strongly worded disputes in the 19th century. Then Schrodinger went and pushed the limits a bit with that cat paper, but thanks to thorough spin control, we managed to make that boring and pompous as well.

From the sample you posted, her writing seems fine. It's admittedly above the fifth grade level, and thus inaccessible to most people working for newspapers in Gringoland today. The only thing that strikes my ears harshly is the occasional place ("If you never learn to swim, you'll surely regret it; and the sea is so big, it won't let you forget it.") where my brain tries to read it as poetry, and the stresses don't fall correctly.

I look forward to hearing about the rest of it.

I wonder if Pinker has ever read Erma Bombeck or if he's just spouting a stereotype of a domestic humor columnist. She must have been trivial because she wrote about women's lives, which are of course unimportant. As a budding feminist, I loved Bombeck. She blew a breath of fresh air on the cloying images of women presented in most media at the time.

Great points about Pinker's possible sexism. Most people see Angier as being one of the two or three best science writers out there, including the AAAS which has given her a number of awards for it.

She had this great and surprisingly funny interview on Point of Inquiry about the Canon and about science writing,

By RabbleRouserBrowser (not verified) on 01 Jul 2007 #permalink

I haven't read the book, but going by your quote from it, the writer I'm most strongly reminded of is Carl Sagan in Demon-Haunted World. That made heavy use of the metaphor of human reason as a precarious, flickering candle pretecting us from the fear of nameless and unknown horrors.

Both 'Demon Haunted World' and the passage above give me shivers down my spine and remind me why I do this job. I'd call them both flowery, I suppose, but don't we deserve to get flowers now and again?

Oh no, hang on, flowers are lively and scented and girly and therefore bad things. I forgot.

I was at a seminar about public speaking for scientists and I gave a short synopsis of another person's research then the audience was invited to critique what I said. One of the comments was that a person (male)) didn't like that I said a certain technique "doesn't work" because that sounded "too subjective" and not objective like a scientist. I was completely floored, I couldn't understand how the phrase "doesn't work" could be considered subjective. The person running the seminar (a woman) allowed the comments to continue and at the end said, "As a woman, you have to be very careful about what you say because you will always be perceived to be more subjective than a man." This was a woman who was very well-known for teaching public speaking and had a class at the law school. Sadly, it seems, she knew what she was talking about.

I absolutely loved The Canon, and a large part of what I loved was the use of metaphors that made me laugh out loud. And I think you are exactly right about Pinker's reaction. It's not that the metaphors are bad; it's that Angier uses metaphors that resonate with certain experiences. Urban (especially New York), educated, able to remember the 70's... and stereotypically female. And that made the metaphors particularly delightful for me. But... well, what it means to be "scientific" is too often stereotypically male.

And I thought that the metaphor soup was actually very effective. Angier often ends descriptions with something alliterative and silly, yes, but I think that the absurdity helps keep the reader from confusing the metaphor with reality.

"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."

This reminds me of what Aldo Leopold once wrote in the essay "Song of the Gavilan";

There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each selects one instrument and spends his life taking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for the dismemberment is called a university.

A professor may pluck the strings of his own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets.

Professors serve science and science serves progress. It serves progress so well that many of the more intricate instruments are stepped upon and broken in the rush to spread progress to all backward lands. One by one the parts are thus stricken from the songs of songs. If the professor is able to classify each instrument before it is broken, he is well content.

Hmm...maybe finish the book before you disagree with the critics to the point of impugning their judgement and suggesting that bigotry informs their opinions of this book or writing style.

Anyway, it's always welcome to find an author who is skillful at spreading the joy of science.

By Spaulding (not verified) on 16 Jul 2007 #permalink