Book Review: The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

The CanonThe Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
by Natalie Angier
A Mariner Book, 2007
293 pages (paperback)

Available
Amazon.com

I’m not a huge fan of books in the Idiot’s or Dummies Guide genre.  It is not that they don’t have a place; I’m just not big on books written with a Comic San Serif font and pages plastered with cartoons—you know, like I’m 10 years old and need help from Binky the Clown.

The Canon by Natalie Angier, however, is an introductory book that promises to be a “Whirligig Tour,” but without the need for clown-like delivery and balloon comments to keep the reader interested.  This book is intelligent and friendly, good for science-phobes, as well as those who, like me, just love reading on the subject whenever I can justify it. Angier avoids the pedantic and includes plenty of wit.

Admittedly, there are points where I feel she tries little too hard on the witticism, with the clear intention of connecting pop-culture and her subject.  “What distinguishes a fundamental force of nature from the more familiar, frightening forces of nature,” says Angier, “like hurricanes, earthquakes, Donald Trump’s hair piece?”  Still, her delivery works and the book pulls off what so many have not been able to—a basic knowledge of science.  As a professor in religion, I’d love to create a course on religion and science that would allow me to use a text like this.  That is probably why it caught my attention in the first place.

The book is a thoughtful narrative on the most important scientific discoveries in the last century.  It is a good reminder that science is never stale and should never be taken for granted.  “Science is not a body of facts,” says Angier.  “Science is a state of mind. It is a way of viewing the world, of facing reality square on but taking nothing on its face.”

Angier, the National Book Award finalist for Woman: An Intimate Geography and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times embeds her book with memorable take-aways from her interviews with scientists.  Her journalistic instincts serve her well and allow her book to communicate with the reader.  Whether it’s biology, chemistry, or astronomy, she keeps the narrative moving.

Amid the whirligig, there is also a transcendental aspect to the discussion of science that appears periodically in The Canon.  Science is, as she says, “bottomless in its beauty.” Selah.

We are of the universe, and by studying the universe we ultimately turn the mirror on ourselves.  ‘Science is not describing a universe out there, and we’re separate entities,” said Brian Greene.  “We’re part of that universe, we’re made of the same stuff as that universe, of ingredients that behave according to the same laws as they do elsewhere in the universe’

“God formed man from the dust of the ground,” says the second creation account (Genesis 2:7).   Whether or not that ancient science is delivering an historical account of creation or not, there is something that both it and modern science have in common—we belong to the universe.  Our dust can be found everywhere out there.  When we look into the sky, we are looking for ourselves.  Science is very personal.

Angier reminds the reader that science is about discovery.  It is about asking questions.  “Science is an inherently uncertain enterprise,” writes Angier, “and that uncertainty is, paradoxically, another source of its power.” Scientists are supposed to be as happy with their questions and uncertainties as they are with their discoveries.  Strangely enough, this virtuous quality often interferes with the ability of science to communicate its successes.

‘We’re out there looking for new patterns, new laws, new fundamentals, new uncertainties,’ said Any Ingersoll, an astronomer at Caltech.  ‘And as we’re looking, and discovering new things, we’re debating about what we see.  We express our differences of opinion, sometimes strongly until the public gets confused.  Doesn’t science know the answer to anything?  Well, yes, eventually a consensus may be reached about a particular problem.  But by then, we’ve already moved on to the next uncertainty, the next unknown.  You don’t linger.’

Discovery is rapid—whirligigy—messy, and it can be overwhelming, especially for the public.  What strikes me is the question of whether science knows “anything.”  I know non-scientists who ask that question and use the discovery process of science to argue against it.

Think Climate Change.

Think radio personalities like Glenn Beck.

Scientists are not without guilt here, however. The disconnect between science and the general public that exists today is often a byproduct of bad PR on the part of science.  Scientists have rarely been known for making their discoveries accessible.  No specialist likes to “dumb down” his or her field for those who are generally uninterested in it.  Yet, there is a sense in which we cannot expect the public to have a greater respect for the process of science unless it is communicated successfully.

Each year I teach, I notice that students buck against so-called “difficult” books.  The problem is, often I choose a book because it is actually an introduction to a topic.  By this I mean, it is the easy book.  It is easy compared to another book on the same subject I read years earlier, which at that time was (as far as I can tell) the introductory and easy book of its time.  The cycle continues until the common expectation is that everything should be pureed, which brings me back to the Dummies guides.

Somewhere there needs to be a balance between meeting the public on a level that they understand and calling us (the public) to go beyond the minimum we expect for ourselves.  At 293 pages, The Canon is a good place to start.

  • Excellent review. I have this book on my list to be read right after I finish Polkinghorne’s Theology in the Context of Science.

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