THE CANON: A WHIRLIGIG TOUR OF THE BEAUTIFUL BASICS OF SCIENCE by Natalie Angier (Houghton Mifflin), 293 pages, $35.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
Science, to hear Natalie Angier tell it, is fun and fascinating, and we all learn that as kids until the horrors of high school destroy it for us.
She's on a mission to rekindle that fascination in adults, and she succeeds nicely, moving us logically and easily from one major discipline to the next.
Stories about the workings of probability and scale set us up for narratives of physics, which lead naturally to chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology and, finally, astronomy. We're left with a good sense of how the parts create a richly interwoven whole.
In extensive interviews with working scientists in the major fields, Angier asks such questions as "What should non-specialist non-children know about science?" Specifically, she seeks the canonical concepts in each field, the established fundamentals that, as she puts it, still bowl you over with their beauty.
In anatomizing that beauty, Angier merges the interviews with the ideas to put a human face on things and show us the way scientists think. It's well worth knowing that when scientists say the word "theory," they mean something much more rigorously worked out than the rest of us do, for whom "theory" means "best guess."
Angier, the biology writer for the New York Times, is expert at turning the intricacies of molecular bonding into a lucid and compelling tale. A big part of her technique involves her highly developed knack for wordplay and comic imagery, to give complex ideas an everyday context.
There's no hard slogging here, but sometimes the humour is a bit much. There's scarcely a paragraph without some kind of gag. That slows the flow and creates the uneasy sense that Angier doesn't quite trust her readers.
That's a small flaw in a readable and highly useful book.