A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

The Canon: A whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
© 2007 Natalie Angier
293 pages

Science is amazing! Why is so much of the writing about it so lame?   Natalie Angier’s The Canon first reviews the principles of scientific thinking before talking – nay, gushing — about the basics of physics, chemistry, cosmology, biology,  astronomy, and geology.   But this isn’t just a science primer like Almost Everyone’s Guide to Science, or Theories for Everything. It is written with a conscious desire to seem fun, so the author is borderline bubbly and generous with cultural references and wordplay.  It’s sometimes distracting, but I enjoyed it on the whole.  The personable approach to science also manifests itself in the way Angier works in little stories about her life that relate (like being thunderstruck by an earthquake in her normally placid residence in  D.C.), or interviews with scientists in the field, whose own love and continuing wonder for their subject is part of the delivery.   This is definitely a layman’s approach to science — there’s no graphs, equations, or tables to be found, no terrifying mathematics — but what made a winner for me, from the get-go, were the opening chapters on thinking scientifically. Angier sells the scientific method to readers by connecting it to what they already do: for instance,  the act of troubleshooting a technical problem is similar, as we attempt to narrow down problems by focusing on one variable at a time. A reader who reads Brian Greene with ease may find Angier’s lively — manic, even —  romp through the lab to be silly, but I found her enthusiasm welcome and the wordplay diverting.  A sample from her chapter on geology:

The planet we inhabit, the bedrock base on which we build our lives, is in a profound sense alive as well, animate form from end to end and core to skin. Earth, as I said earlier, is often called the Goldilocks planet, where conditions are just right for life and it is neither too hot nor too cold, where atoms are free to form molecules and water droplets to pool into seas. There is something about Goldilocks, beyond her exacting tastes, that makes her a noteworthy character, a fitting focus for our attentions. The girl cannot sit still. She’s restless and impulsive and surprisingly rude. She wanders off into woods without saying where she’s headed or when she’ll be home. She barges through doors uninvited, helps herself to everybody else’s food, and breaks the furniture. But don’t blame her. She can’t help herself. Goldilocks is so raw and brilliant that she has to let off steam. Like Goldilocks the protagonist, Goldilocks the planet is a born dynamo, and without her constant twitching, humming, and seat bouncing, her intrinsic animation, Earth would not have any oceans, or skies, or buffers against the sun’s full electromagnetic fury; and we animate beings, we DNA bearers, would never have picked  ourselves up off the floor.   The transaction was not one-sided, though. The restless, heave-hoing motions of the planet helped give rise to life, and restless life, in turn, reshaped Earth.” 

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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4 Responses to A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

  1. Mudpuddle says:

    this sounds like a wonderful book! as my training was in geology( i worked in the oil field, mostly) i've been depressed at the illogicality displayed by almost everyone i meet or talk to… the basics of science are one of the greatest creations of the human mind, and people desperately need to be made aware of that… tx a bunch for posting about this book!

  2. Science has always been a foreign language to me, but the book you've highlighted might be a good translation for me. BTW, coincidental to the title of your posting, the wind has blown this whirligig into a different direction (i.e., my blog has been reinvented with a new address), and I hope you will stop by and visit. Here is the new link:

  3. Stephen says:

    Will look forward to your future posting there, then!

  4. Stephen says:

    My pleasure! It was a random discovery made while browsing ..

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