Sep 7, 2010

The Canon by Natalie Angier

The Canon by Natalie Angier

As the title indicates, The Canon: The Beautiful Basics of Science is an introduction to the fundamentals of several sciences, namely physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology and astronomy. Angier dedicates a chapter to each of these, and precedes them with three more general (and absolutely brilliant) chapters on the hows and whys of the scientific method. After finishing Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography a few weeks ago, I couldn’t resist starting The Canon right away: I was hoping for more of her dazzling erudition and accessible handling of science, combined with her warmth and humour; her passion and enthusiasm. And that, my friends, is exactly what I got.

The Canon is a book meant for a general audience who will not necessarily have a scientific background, but it’s not the kind of book that becomes tedious when you already know the things it’s telling you. Natalie Angier’s tone immediately captured me: she’s conversational and humorous, but also extremely precise, and her approach is always fresh. I was as enthralled when reading the chapters that were about things familiar to me as I was when reading the ones that were new. Having said that, I did have my favourites – astronomy, evolutionary biology and geology interested me more than physics or chemistry (I’m so sorry, Flavia de Leuce!). I feel bad for having such a clich├ęd reaction, especially as The Canon talks about how underappreciated physics is, and how on the other hand everyone seems to love astronomy, but I really can’t help it. I fear that I just lack the background to be able to appreciate physics properly.

As much as I enjoyed being reminded of (or introduced to – my scientific education is sorely lacking) the basics of several sciences, what really made The Canon for me were those three initial chapters. If you’ve been reading me for a while, you’ll have realised that I’m a humanities girl who’s absolutely passionate about science literacy, and who really regrets all the misunderstandings and occasional absurd enmity that seem to exist between the two fields of knowledge. I know that we humanities people often feel that what we do is dismissed because it’s considered not as good or as real as hard science, and yes, that’s a valid and justified feeling, but I won’t get into it here – what I want to talk about is the fact that this is sometimes countered with a dismissal of science that is based on a deep misunderstanding of what it is and how it works.

I realise that just the other day I was raging against universal book recommendations, but, contradictory human being that I am, I’m going to say that The Canon (along with Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science) is a book I wish everyone would read. I don’t say this because I want everyone to be persuaded to see the world this way or that, but because these books are full of important knowledge that I wish more people had access too – and more, they present it in a completely accessible way. No, science isn’t infallible, and yes, there are important conversations that can be had about the philosophical implications of science, about science and ethics, science and sexism, science and racism, and so on. However, it upsets me to see easy, lazy and dismissive science criticism which is based on nothing but straw man arguments, least of all because this can never lead to any productive conversations. If everyone knew the basics – the kind of basics The Canon presents so well – it would be possible to have discussion that went far beyond dispelling misconceptions. And wouldn’t that be better for everyone?

As I’m sure you can guess, Natalie Angier is nothing if not passionate about science literacy herself, and she spends part of The Canon tackling common misconceptions about how the scientific method works. She talks about the huge misunderstandings surrounding the word “theory”, about probabilities and statistics and how easy it is to manipulate people’s understanding of them (note to self: read How to Lie With Statistics), and about the fact that misinformation about science is so frighteningly prevalent. She gives an example in particular that really struck me: when asked to explain the fact that we have seasons, a frighteningly high percentage of university students, even post-graduate students, mentioned the fact that the orbit of the earth around the sun is an ellipses, which means that sometimes we’re closer to it (summer) and sometimes further away (winter). Never mind that this wouldn’t explain the differences between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, of course.

Natalie Angier mentions that this is an example of the kind of easy pseudoscientific explanation that many people are exposed to when they’re very young, and that permanently remains unexamined at the back of their minds. The really scary thing is that I clearly remember being taught this explanation for the seasons myself. If you’re confused at this point, by the way – and if so, you’re very much not alone – the real explanation has to do with the earth’s tilt. Angier is an unapologetic advocate of a revolution in how science is taught, and having been thoroughly miseducated myself, I can’t disagree with her. In the meantime, I’m extremely grateful for books such as The Canon.

Favourite bits:
“Science is not a collection of rigid dogmas, and what we call scientific truth is constantly being revised, challenged, and refined,” said Michael Duff, a theoretical physicist at the University of Michigan. “It’s irritating to hear people who hold fundamentalist views accuse scientists of being the inflexible, rigid ones, when usually it’s the other way around. As a scientist, you know that any new discovery you’re lucky enough to uncover will raise more questions than you started with, and that you must always question what you thought was correct and remind yourself how little you know. Science is a very humble and humbling activity.”

Yes, the world is out there, over your head and under your nose, and it is real and it is knowable. To understand something about why a thing is as it is in no way detracts from its beauty and grandness, nor does it reduce the observed to “just a bunch of” — chemicals, molecules, equations, specimens for a microscope. Scientists get annoyed at the hackneyed notion that their pursuit of knowledge diminished the mystery or art or “holiness” of life. Let’s say you look at a red rose, says Brian Greene, and you understand a bit about the physics behind its lovely blood blush. You know that red is a certain wavelength of light and that light is made of little particles called photons. You understand that photons representing all colours of the rainbow stream from the sun and strike the surface of the rose, but that, as a result of the molecular composition of pigments in the rose, it’s the red photons that bounce off its petal and up to your eyes, and so you see red.
“I like that picture,” said Greene. “I like the extra story line, which comes, by the way, from Richard Feynman. But I still have the same strong emotional response to a rose as anybody else. It’s not as though you become an automaton, dissecting things to death.” To the contrary. A rose is a rose is a rose; but a dissected rose is a sonnet.

People have the mistaken impression that the great revolutions in the history of science overturned prevailing wisdom. In fact, most of the great ideas subsumed their predecessors, gulped them whole and got bigger in the act. Albert Einstein did not prove that Isaac Newton was wrong. Instead, he showed that Newton’s theories of motion and gravity were incomplete, and that new equations were needed to explain the behaviour of objects under extreme circumstances, such as when tiny particles travel at or near the speed of light. Einstein made the pi wider and lighter and more exotically scalloped in space and time. But for the workaday trajectories of the Earth spinning around the sun, or a baseball barrelling toward a bat, or a brand-new earring sliding down a drain, Newton’s laws of motion still apply.

We human beings are, genetically, 99.9 percent identical to one another. Those few places where our genomes differ—from the archived archetype and from one another—help explain the individual differences that our eyes easily seize on, and too easily magnify. If only we could see the genome we carry within us; then we might appreciate the homogeneous depths of our common humanity.
Other reviews:
Tammy’s Book Nook

(Yours?)

30 comments:

  1. Wow. This book sounds amazing. I was just thinking the other day how much my science knowledge is lacking and I had no idea where to start.. maybe this is a good place. I have Woman as well. You recommend that too, huh?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm going to bookmark this page for later; I don't know enough about science and would like to change that. An accessible book sounds good!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have no criticisms of science, it just scares the hell out of me. I avoid science books like the plague, because I always feel they will be too detailed and go way over my head. However, you have made me realise that science is a lot more accessible than I had ever thought. I might just give this one a try.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree with you about the beginning of the book. As I was reading it, I had so many stickies put in from bits I wanted to quote that after a while I gave up and decided I had to rethink my reviewing strategy for this one! It might be best to add to my review, as you have, that this is a book I wish everyone would read!

    Oh, and I loved loved loved her sense of humor!!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I like that second quote a lot; it gets right at the heart of my worldview... Although I think I'd take it one step further... All of those photons entering my eye set off a cascade of electrical and chemical changes in my brain, the result of which is that I smile and my entire day is a little bit better. A bunch of photons and chemicals made my day better! If that's not a miracle, I don't know what is. :)

    For physics, you might want to try The Tao of Physics. Physics is also my least favorite science, but that book managed to present particle physics in such a way that a) I understood at least 2/3 of it, and b) I found it, and the parallels it drew to various Eastern religions, totally fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I am so glad I already have this book on my shelves. :) Sounds like there is just sooooo much to love about this book!!!

    I really love each of the passages you posted. That first one explains something so many people don't seem to realize about how much time Rich spends preparing his classes. On top of all the "normal" stuff, he spends hours upon hours every week reading--journals, books, science blogs, etc. Knowledge is expanded so often, and he just can't bear the idea that he might not be passing on to his students all there is to know at date. He's constantly updating his lectures with new examples, etc. Oh, I just love that quote--"Science is a very humble and humbling activity."

    Thank you, Ana, for another incredible, incredible review!

    ReplyDelete
  7. This sounds like such a fun book! I do have a rather strong background in the "core sciences" of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, but I think it would be fun to read about the realms I actually know little about such as astronomy and geology.

    I love when people speak intelligently about science in a way that the average person can understand. There really are so many misconceptions out there (and people really are very bad at understanding statistics!), so anything that helps promote a more accurate view of the world and how things works is always a good thing in my book! I'll have to check this one out!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Only for you would I pick up a book about physics and science. Normally I would run away screaming because while I find it interesting, nobody has yet been able to deliver it to me without boring me to tears. Maybe I have found the answer? Bless you and your eccentric reading tastes!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I know so little about science, and think that I would actually relish the opportunity to learn more in a non-threatening way, so this book sounds more than interesting to me. Often I shy away from reading outside my comfort zone because it can be a little intimidating and over my head, which is why the accessibility of this book really appeals to me. I will have to check this one out and let you know what I think! Great review, as usual, Anna!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'd been debating whether or not to read this one as an audio or eBook or Print. After reading your review, I think it going to have to be the print version, so that I can re-read and take notes, etc. Thank you for another wonderful article.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I wonder if this book would help me get over my fear of physics.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This book really sounds amazing. I haven't even thought about science since I was 17 and I really wonder if books like this are the way I can get back into that mindset. I've added both this and Bad Science to my wishlist.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm currently getting my fill of science from Mary Roach's Packing for Mars, but I'm definitely putting this one on the list.

    ReplyDelete
  14. You've done it again! Now I have to read both of Angier's books. And although I agree wholeheartedly about chemistry (ick!), I do adore physics--the philosophy behind it. If only it didn't involve so much math...

    And if you're going to read a book about the manipulation of statistics, may I also suggest Freakonomics (can't remember authors)? Brilliant book.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Ana, stop taking over my reading list!

    I'm going to start with Angier with Woman: An Intimate Geography, due to your review, and this sounds like a great way to ground myself in science despite being, like you, a humanities girl. Hmm!

    ReplyDelete
  16. I actually have less interest in astronomy and more interest in physics. I wish that I took that route in high school, rather than anatomy, even though mathematics was never a "yay this is fun" sorta subject for me.

    Heck, I wish that I paid more attention to general studies in high school.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I actually have less interest in astronomy and more interest in physics. I wish that I took that route in high school, rather than anatomy, even though mathematics was never a "yay this is fun" sorta subject for me.

    Heck, I wish that I paid more attention to general studies in high school.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This sounds like my kind of book :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. That sounds like such an amazing book! Sadly I need to read the "easy" science books for the masses because I'm not that good at the natural sciences, and it's so difficult to find ones that are written in a way that I undertand the concepts but are not pseudo science.

    I love science though, not just the humanities, and I wish my teachers had taken more time to explain difficult concepts to me.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I'm officially mad for scientific literacy, but I am always putting my science-y books aside in favor of books about the Victorians. #ashamed However, Natalie Angier sounds fantastic, and since I've never been able to get my hands on Bad Science, I'll have to depend on her to educate me. :p

    ReplyDelete
  21. Sounds like another great book. I really need to read Woman already! I wish I had packed it with me for my trip...

    ReplyDelete
  22. This sounds like something I should really read.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I can never resist a really great non-fiction book. Having spent all of my college years studying liberal arts I am sorely lacking in my knowledge of the sciences. This would be the perfect read for me.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I went through a pretty significant phase a few years ago when all I felt like reading were pop science books. Of course now I can't remember hardly what any of them were, but I've been thinking recently I'd like to read a few science-y books again. I had held off on this one because someone else had told me that they too loved Woman, but didn't like this book at all...but now I'm torn! I liked Woman, but more for it's subject matter than Angier's style, which I found annoying at times. So I don't know.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I just finished Bad Science and was thinking about whether any other such science books exist. I am DEFINITELY getting this one. Can't wait. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  26. Clover: I definitely also recommend Woman, yes. I liked it a bit more than this one, though both are great.

    Charlie: This is the perfect place to begin changing that :)

    Vivienne: I promise this won't go over your head! She takes care to explain things in detail and never assumes that readers already have a science background.

    Jill: Isn't it wonderful? I'm very much looking forward to your review of this!

    Fyrefly: Perfectly put :) And thanks for the recommendation!

    Debi: I have no doubt that you'll love this! And I loved the humble and humbling quote as well :)

    Steph: I love intelligent but accessible discourse about science too - and lacking that kind of background myself, I'm incredibly thankful for it!

    Sandy: Angier is anything but boring, you'll see!

    Zibilee: I get the intimidation, but I think you'd really enjoy this. Angier's style is so conversational and intimate - she'll make you feel at home right away!

    Amcatoir: Yes, I'd probably recommend the print version. I think the audio might have made me feel a little lost at times.

    Kathy: I think it would :P Mine isn't gone for good, but this helped.

    Meghan: It's even worse for me. Over here you have to pick humanities, sciences or arts when you enter high school (which is RIDICULOUS in my opinion), so my formal scientific education stopped in grade 9 :S

    ReplyDelete
  27. Trisha: Packing for Mars sounds like so much fun too!

    ds: Yeah, part of my problem with physics is the maths. I just don't have the background to get it all. I read Freakonomics a few years ago and it really was a great read!

    Clare: Sorry; I'll try! Well, I'll stop for a month, at least ;) Woman is indeed a better place to start, but both are excellent reads.

    Christina: I bet it would warm the hearts of physicists everywhere to hear that :P

    Lightheaded: I think you'd really enjoy it, yes :)

    Bina: It is difficult - and I always worry about being fooled by pseudoscience :S But Angier and Goldacre are both GREAT at making things accessible, so I high recommend this and Bad Science.

    Jenny: lol, I've been guilty of the same myself many times. Stupid Victorians.. did they have to be so interesting? :P About Bad Science, I think it's actually only being released in the US this year, so you might be able to find it soon!

    Amy: I wish you had too! You must read it soon, and then write one of your awesome Amy reviews :P

    Breena: I hope you'll enjoy it if you do!

    Kathleen: Yes, same here! And that's one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much.

    Emily Jane: Personally I love her style, though I can see why not everyone would. I think there's plenty of here to love in terms of content, though, even if you're not too crazy about her tone. Especially in those introductory chapters!

    Joanna: I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Bad Science!

    ReplyDelete
  28. This sounds fantastic! Thanks for the great review :)

    ReplyDelete
  29. I am very late in commenting and I apologize for that. I hope you get to read my comment.

    Natalie Angier's book sounds quite fascinating! Thanks for writing about it. I liked the fact that she explains the methods of science before actually describing the different branches of science.

    I enjoyed reading all the passages you have selected. My favourite line was - "A rose is a rose is a rose; but a dissected rose is a sonnet."

    On your observation on science people dismissing humanities because it’s considered not as good or as real as hard science, I have an interesting thing to add. Today the hottest area in physics is Superstring theory (it is called by many names) which tries to explain the way the universe is structured and tries to unify the theories of relativity, gravity and quantum mechanics. (Though these seems to work separately - relativity and gravity with respect to big objects like solar systems and galaxies and quantum mechanics with respect to objects at the subatomic level - taken together they are inconsistent). The current way the research works is like this - scientists sit in front of their computer, write equations and try modelling them and write papers on them. There is no shred of real-world evidence for whatever they are doing. It is like writing a fantasy story, but not in a human language but in equations. A story in a human language might have some morals or might make a philosophical point or might depict the world condition at a particular time. This 'mathematical story' does none of these. It is not 'hard science' by conventional definition. So, if someone tells you that science is 'hard science' you can win the argument, by giving them this example :)

    I will look for Natalie Angier's book.

    As for your comment - 'I fear that I just lack the background to be able to appreciate physics properly' - I would recommend that you try reading 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson. Bryson tackles physics and other sciences with his trademark humour and it is wonderful - it is the best science book for a general audience that I have ever read :) I will have to read Natalie Angier's book and see whether Bryson is still able to hold his ground after that :)

    ReplyDelete
  30. I am very late in commenting and I apologize for that. I hope you get to read my comment.

    Natalie Angier's book sounds quite fascinating! Thanks for writing about it. I liked the fact that she explains the methods of science before actually describing the different branches of science.

    I enjoyed reading all the passages you have selected. My favourite line was - "A rose is a rose is a rose; but a dissected rose is a sonnet."

    On your observation on science people dismissing humanities because it’s considered not as good or as real as hard science, I have an interesting thing to add. Today the hottest area in physics is Superstring theory (it is called by many names) which tries to explain the way the universe is structured and tries to unify the theories of relativity, gravity and quantum mechanics. (Though these seems to work separately - relativity and gravity with respect to big objects like solar systems and galaxies and quantum mechanics with respect to objects at the subatomic level - taken together they are inconsistent). The current way the research works is like this - scientists sit in front of their computer, write equations and try modelling them and write papers on them. There is no shred of real-world evidence for whatever they are doing. It is like writing a fantasy story, but not in a human language but in equations. A story in a human language might have some morals or might make a philosophical point or might depict the world condition at a particular time. This 'mathematical story' does none of these. It is not 'hard science' by conventional definition. So, if someone tells you that science is 'hard science' you can win the argument, by giving them this example :)

    I will look for Natalie Angier's book.

    As for your comment - 'I fear that I just lack the background to be able to appreciate physics properly' - I would recommend that you try reading 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson. Bryson tackles physics and other sciences with his trademark humour and it is wonderful - it is the best science book for a general audience that I have ever read :) I will have to read Natalie Angier's book and see whether Bryson is still able to hold his ground after that :)

    ReplyDelete

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.