The Beauty of the Beastly

The Beauty of the Beastly
© 1995 Natalie Angier
304 pages

The Beauty of the Beastly is a fun collection of science pieces by Natalie Angier, ranging from macro to microbiology, with some science interviews added at the end. The reader will find here a chat with Stephen Jay Gould on dinosaurs and the tired nature-nature debate, a tribute to dung beetles, an examination of the importance of cell-deaths, the role of diet as a cancer-preventive, and a reappraisal of menses. Oh, and there’s cheetahs, scorpions, pit vipers, and hyenas, too. Angier is the rare science writer who can combine a command of details with literary flourish, delivering the truth in a beautiful way. Witness:

AS LONG AS there have been poets to pierce the darkness with their diamond songs, and painters to capture blades of sun shattering on cool cathedral stone, and artists of all persuasions to consort with the gods and articulate the union, there have been social critics to notice that an awful lot of these creative types are mentally unsound.

I found Angier first through her The Canon: A whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science and enjoyed this collection. The nice thing about an essay collection is that if you’re bored by talk of telomeres, there’s always the digest-you-from-the-inside-out role that snake venom plays to consider.

Kindle Highlights:

Every single story that nature tells is gorgeous. She is the original Scheherazade, always with one more surprise to shake from her sleeve.

HEY ARE the P. T. Barnums of the flower kingdom, dedicated to the premise that there is a sucker born every minute: a sucker, that is, with wings, a thorax, and an unquenchable thirst for nectar and love. They are the orchids, flowers so flashy of hue and fleshy of petal that they seem thoroughly decadent. And when it comes to their wiles for deceiving and sexually seducing insect pollinators, their decadence would indeed make Oscar Wilde wilt.

BY TRADITIONAL RECKONING, DNA is the benign dictator of the cell, the omniscient molecule that issues commands to create enzymes, metabolize food, or die a willing death. Recent advances, though, suggest that DNA is more like your average politician, surrounded by a flock of protein handlers and advisers that must vigorously massage it, twist it, and, on occasion, reinvent it before the blueprint of the body can make any sense at all.

On occasion, a female copperhead will take advantage of the loser syndrome. Approaching a potential mate, she will mimic another male, rearing up as though ready for battle. Should the mock display terrify the suitor, she will take it as evidence that the male is a loser and reject him as unfit for paternity. Females mare almost exclusively with winners.

[Stephen Jay Gould] picks up a filament of an idea, follows it a short distance, loops it together with another insight and yet another, until enough strands have been threaded in to make a plushly coherent pattern. “Everybody has some curious little mental skill,” he says. “Mine just happens to be making these connections. If you’re lucky, you learn to convert that skill into a professional advantage. Otherwise, it’s just a party trick.”

A science writer who casually references A Thousand and One Nights!

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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1 Response to The Beauty of the Beastly

  1. Pingback: April 2023 in Review | Reading Freely

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