Book Review: The Canon by Natalie Angier

Most of us think we know complexity. We think our lives or our jobs are complex. Raising children, or maintaining a marriage are very complex endurance tests, requiring the accumulation of all sorts of knowledge from a myriad of disciplines. But what we laymen and laywomen consider complex pales in comparison to the vast body of knowledge that we call science.

To add insult to injury, we also think that we know enough about science, and structure our lives around it as if we do, when in fact we know just enough about science to be dangerous, and not enough to be useful. Consider all the people who mesh their beliefs derived from their religious upbringing concerning the origins of the universe and life, with the smattering of information they get in school, and arrive at a mish-mash of belief and fact which they call creationism, or in it current incarnation, intelligent design creationism.

Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times, has written a wonderful book called The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, which , at least for me, helped dispel many of the myths surrounding science, while at the same time presenting a lucid and well written exposition on basic information concerning the subject that we should all have in our overworked yet underused brains. I thought I was well grounded in the basics, but I found much information in here that I did not know, or that I frankly was previously misinformed about. The process of acquiring beliefs is a dangerous one, since it is inherent in human nature that once we have convinced ourselves of the truth or falsity of any matter, it is well nigh impossible to shake that belief, even when confronted with almost irrefutable evidence. Books like this maintain perspective and help keep us from wandering into self-delusion.

Ms. Angier is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who concentrates on explaining science to the masses – us. She has been reporting on science since 1980 when she wrote for Discover magazine. As someone with a background in science, and a career writing about it, she found that most people in America had the attitude that science was boring, was irrelevant to their lives, or was something they really did not need to know. As she relates:

Here is a line I have heard many times through the years, whenever I’ve mentioned what I do for a living. “Science writing? I haven’t followed science since I flunked high school chemistry” (or a close second, “…since I flunked high school physics.”) … Even years of grade inflation cannot dislodge the F as the modal grade in the nation’s chemistry consciousness.

This book is an attempt to change that attitude, and raise our collective modal grade, though I suspect that people who maintain that attitude would not be likely to read this book. That would be a terrible loss, because the book shows so much potential of succeeding.

The author breaks the book into nine chapters which deal with the basic areas of science – Physics, Chemistry, Evolutionary Biology, Molecular Biology, Geology and Astronomy – along with three chapters needed to help understand the other six – on thinking scientifically, on probabilities and statistics, and on calibration and measuring. The chapters can be read by themselves, but are also integrated sufficiently so that one chapter lays a base for the next. (She mentions that she laid out the chapters in the way they should be studied in school. High schools tend to teach biology and chemistry before physics, but that is starting to change with the recognition that physics deals with the building blocks of life, and should be understood before chemistry, and then biology).

Angier is what is known as a popular science writer, as she writes for the layman. Her job, the one she strives to attain perfection in, is to translate, in a sense, the arcane and dense language of science, as written by actual scientists, into the language of the common man. Her tools are a talent for clear and concise description, along with a reliance on effective metaphor. Use of the latter is a very good way to get across to the lay reader the nuances of a highly technical matter in a way they may more readily comprehend. Sometimes her metaphors are strange and obtuse themselves, which can impede understanding, thereby defeating the attempt, but on the whole, most moderately read individuals will find them helpful, and often times humorous. Here she disputes the example of blood clotting as a point in favor of intelligent design:

Today, clotting is like professional baseball. Just as the Yankees can’t play as an eight person team, so the loss of just one clotting factor can threaten your life, knock you out of the game. The current interdependency of our clotting network accounts for its extraordinary speed and vigor, but that doesn’t mean it was ever thus, or can be only thus. “Blood clotting is not an all-or-none phenomenon,” writes [Kenneth] Miller. “Like any complex system, it can begin to evolve, imperfect and simple, from the basic material of blood and tissue.” A sea urchin makes do with its simple white cells, and two kids with a ball can play catch in the park.

As for her writing ability, I’ll leave you with this explanation, from the end of the Chemistry chapter, of the interplay of basic chemical processes that give us an apple:

Apples begin budding on a tree right after the blossoms of spring have enticed insect pollinators to help fertilize a new crop of seeds. The blossoms fall away, and, in a grand endothermic production – paid for by the tree’s photosynthesizing leaves – a fruit bulges up around five pockets, or carpels, of seeds. Those seeds need time to mature, however, before they are capable of leaving the pod and sprouting new apple trees. An unripe apple therefore is a forbidding fruit, its cell walls thick and impermeable, its meat starchy, fibrous, and acidic, its outer skin plasticine green – common fruit shorthand for CONSTRUCTION AREA: KEEP OUT.

Give the apple and its seeds time, however, and they begin releasing ripening hormones, most notably ethylene. Ethylene is a compact molecular bundle of hydrogen and carbon atoms – a hydrocarbon – but its effects are large and fruitful. As Ethylene molecules diffuse through the apple in the manner of a gas, they stimulate the activity of other enzymes, a platoon of fruit gentrifiers, coaches, carpenters, copy editors, wardrobe consultants, attitude adjusters. Some enzymes clip the starchy, complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, others help neutralize the acids, while still others break down the pectin glue between fruit cells and so help soften the fruit. As the cells become looser, sweeter, and more permeable, the fruit adopts an almost animal-like respiratory style, breathing in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. The soaring sugar content sucks in water from the stem, and the apple turns juicy. Its degraded molecules are now small enough to volatilize into the air and convey the distinctive aroma we perceive as apple. Enzymes in the skin help whisk away the green chlorophyll and generate in its stead bright, beguiling pigments of red and yellow, which can be seen from a distance and which are to a fruit-eating bird or mammal the visual equivalent of a dinner bell. Most of these chemical reactions are exothermic: in feel as in looks, the ripening fruit nearly glows. At last the apple can be plucked and sampled, and its warmth shared with someone you love.

I’ll bet you didn’t know how that worked, did you? Doesn’t that just make you want to run down to the fruit stand for an apple?

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Canon by Natalie Angier

  1. I bought Angier’s book shortly after it came out, but it’s sitting on my shelf, along with about fifteen other books I’ve purchased in the last year but not yet cracked open. Now, I’m motivated to pick it up and read it right away. Of course, I can’t — because I’m still trying to digest Lamb: Burrrrp.)

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  3. I just started reading Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World”. Will try to borrow Natalie Angier’s book from the library one of these days. But next on my reading queue is Neil Tyson’s “Death By Black Hole”. I am hoping to meet him next month in NYC at the conference “The Secular Society and Its Enemies.”

  4. Ditto The Exterminator – except I’ve finished Lamb. The Canon is 11th down on my list of books to read. I may bump it up though because I’ve been wanting to read it since I first got it. Oh, the burden of so many good books to gobble up! 🙂

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  6. okay when i first got on here i was lookinbg for a question i must have that i cant have and its how much power did the inquisistors have during the spanish inquisition.nad guess what?you didnr have it either.i kno youll check this soonb considering yo ujust put this website up like yesterday.come on and help me out.Rawr.

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