Book Reviews the Canon the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier

In the introduction to “The Canon” Natalie Angier laments modern science illiteracy, and even more so, she regrets the way science lost the cool factor it might have had in the time of Apollos & Sputniks. It is, apparently, now considered a thing for kids and a tiny proportion of grown-up (but possibly maladjusted) eggheads. She then proceeds to remedy this sorry state of affairs and presents what she distilled from numerous interviews with scientists and mountains of research: the canonical basics of science for modern times.

“The Canon” starts with the most important – and often overlooked in formal education – idea that science is a way of thinking, a live process and not only the body of facts and theories that are result of this process. A very decent introduction to numeracy and statistics comes next, followed by succinct and informative introductions to physics, chemistry, life sciences (evolutionary and molecular biology), geology and cosmology.

Oh, I so wanted to love this book! It’s based on a premise that I wholeheartedly endorse and it is very much needed. The massive popularity of Bryson’s “Short History of Nearly Everything” shows that the need is recognised among the reading public as well as among the scientists.

Natalie Angier is well placed to write such a book. She studied physics and English, works as a science journalist for the “New York Times” and approaches her task with intelligence, zeal, enthusiasm and huge amounts of determination to make her subject interesting, nay, awe-inspiringly fascinating; sexy, graspable and relevant.

And when it works, it works a treat: a water molecule (and the nature of the hydrogen bond) explained in terms of Mickey-mouse head (ears are the hydrogens, y’see) will probably stay in my memory forever. Her physics chapter is excellent and contains the best explanation of the first law of thermodynamics and its practical and philosophical implications I have read; while her ability to whittle down the detail and the descriptive miasma of chemistry was most admirable. The discussion of the meaning of “theory” in science was also excellent and, appropriately for current US dark-ages-backlash, well placed in the chapter dealing with evolutionary biology.

If you are even semi-literate scientifically, you won’t find much new material in this book: it does fulfil the promise of its title. Angier’s ability to really concentrate on The Basics and not let herself get distracted by the temptingly wondrous detail or theoretical asides gives “The Canon” a clarity and a staying power and justifies the title very well indeed.

I can only wish that the same pencil that pared down the content to such a crystalline core had been also used to shear the stylistic ornamentation that the text is adorned with. Alas, stylistically “The Canon” is a veritable fountain of dazzling fireworks of clever witticisms and oh-aren’t-we-so-intelligent asides. One set of Mickey Mouse ears every few pages is fine and can lighten the tone, but such analogies and anthropomorphisms, pithy comments and dry quips crop up on every page, sometimes several in one paragraph, paraphrased and reinforced with a frequency that becomes tiring.

I would also say (perhaps at the risk of underestimating the arts-literacy of Angier’s target readership) that many of the cultural references won’t be an immediately accessible part of “general knowledge” for most readers. Angier recognises it occasionally herself, and once even supplies a footnote explaining her quip.

Clearly, a stylistic device – however brilliant – that requires a footnote defies the purpose of a stylistic device [cf the allusion to a Tom Stoppard play in the chapter on probabilities – very relevant, and entertaining, for those who can remember this endless sequence of heads at the beginning of Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern, especially in the rather wonderful film version with fantastic Tim Roth – but you have to admit, rather distracting, even if done in a bracket]. And occasionally it all goes rather surreal – I defy anybody to even try to envisage origami animals made from butter and clay.

Add to it an endless supply of American references and New Yorkisms and the canonical ideas can get seriously obscured. This, obviously won’t be a problem for a US reader, but a non-American one might struggle with all the Skivvies, Sheetrocks and Tinkertoys, all in one paragraph; with an assumption that everybody will be closely familiar with the street plan of New York; with phrases like “Objective reality is cold and abstract, subjective reality is warm and Rockwell”. And what the Dickens could possibly be meant by a “Vin Diesel line of lawn tools”?

Thus, the conversational “columnist” style of “The Canon” can be a double-edged sword. Endless displays of gushy cleverness get tiring and breathless attempts to sex-up the subject matter backfire. Instead of illustrating the points, those witticisms may confuse and distract from the content.

Many times I felt my train of thought stopping, either to admire the author’s intelligence or to decode the joke:” You can’t build a perpetual motion machine that will keep clicking and tocking (…) though Leo only knows that thousands of humans from da Vinci fore and aft have tried. They fought the second law, the law won.” Now, who’s Leo? Why fore and aft? And do I really need to let my already overtaxed brain go off on a tangent trying to recall which of The Clash albums contained that tune? And what were we on, kindly remind me, the second law of thermodynamics, wasn’t it?

I am devoting so much space to Angier’s style because the style is what makes or breaks popular science books for any given reader. It’s not enough to say this one is suitable for people without any background in science (as it eminently is), it’s also important to see what other assumptions the author makes about their readers’ frame of reference. The comparison of a mosquito to a Giacometti or protein’s structure to a Jean Arp is only going to work if “Giacometti” and “Arp” efficiently bring up images of a particular style. It will be lost on (and likely to distract) those who never have heard of the artists.

And yet, when “The Canon” succeeds, it does it very well: it deals with the true basics while not losing the sight of the Meaning of It All (the awe-inspiring wonder of the world) and it can provide a sound basis for further exploration to those with very little knowledge of science indeed.

If you are an arts-educated and science-phobic American who considers science boring and who likes his reading peppered liberally with bright NewYorkish witticisms, buy the book now. You’ll love it. If you like Bryson, but consider him a bit low brow, you’ll probably like it too. Anybody else should borrow it first, or consider having a pre-purchase trial read to see what the style does for them.

Cautiously recommended.

3 stars from me, but add half if you liked “The Short History of Nearly Everything”, add one if you are an American, and make it a full 5 if you are a New Yorker.

Faber and Faber hardback, 302 pages (US paparback is availbale on Amazon too).

This review was originally written for