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James Bond with a feather duster

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

  • Natalie Angier
Houghton Mifflin: 2007. 320 pp. $27 0618242953 | ISBN: 0-618-24295-3

Natalie Angier's book The Canon, like many before it, sets out to persuade the public that learning about science can be enjoyable. It focuses on the 'hard' sciences, which here means physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy, together with introductory chapters on thinking scientifically, probability and issues of scale and measurement. Angier proposes that what scientists do is worth a look even for people traumatized by school science lessons. These wary phobics, rather than scientists, are her target audience. But I would also recommend The Canon to professionals, and to the already interested public (a sizeable constituency, as not all school science teaching is bad), because this is a remarkable and delightful book.

Angier, an accomplished, Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist, has clearly thought carefully about the 'why bother?' challenge to science communication. She notes but does not depend on the common arguments that the importance of science makes avoiding it unjustifiable; that future national prowess requires more scientists; or that a scientifically informed public may at last learn reason and decide to put astrologers and lotteries out of business. Instead, she eschews “civic need” for “neural greed”, aiming to demonstrate that “the kinetic beauty of science” makes it fun, awe-inspiring and as much a source of delight as any of humanity's artistic achievements.

Credit: JOE MAGEE

This claim, of course, is not new: witness Einstein, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins and many others. Angier's distinction lies in her exhilarating use of language. Unlike Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (Doubleday, 2003), The Canon does not rely on personalities to brighten up the prose, even when exploring traditionally difficult areas of physics and chemistry. Instead, anecdotes are well chosen, humanizing without patronizing the scientists involved. Angier has no need to name-drop; her writing style holds the reader's attention. (I can vouch for this, having almost missed my stop while reading her book on the train.) For once the blurb — “playful, passionate” — is spot on: this is an astonishingly literary science book, much better written than most. Out goes pedestrian prose; in come references to every cultural form from the scriptures to movies, delicate allusions to writers from Homer and Andrew Marvell to Sigmund Freud, such words as 'accoutred', 'trocar' and 'miasmic', teasing alliterations, the occasional sharp political comment and some truly excruciating puns.

This linguistic fecundity can at times be overwhelming, especially for non-American readers, who may find some of the references baffling (Ty Cobb? Bialies? You'd best keep a search engine handy). A riff on chemical bonds by analogy to their superspy namesake James was unconvincing and somewhat distracting — if Sean Connery is covalent and Roger Moore ionic, where does that leave Daniel Craig? — but this is one of the book's few weaker moments. Elsewhere there are glories, as when Angier remarks of sexual selection in the peacock: “If you survive long enough to breed, and if you score handsomely, even orgiastically, in a single spring spree, who cares if you're a feather duster come summer?” The peacock's tail is standard fare in evolutionary biology textbooks, but few descriptions linger in the mind as enjoyably as Angier's.

Readers who like their texts spartan will loathe this one, which rarely uses one metaphor, simile, adjective or subclause where two, three or four can be squeezed in. Purists who object to anthropomorphisms should also take note: The Canon overflows with loyal water droplets, preening cells, anxious and fidgety electrons, and the like. In my judgement, however, the benefits — if only in counteracting the still-prevalent 'two cultures' stereotype of science as the preserve of barely literate philistines — make the purple passages worthwhile. Those who find the style off-putting should persevere, because Angier's gift for metaphor lights up the dustiest corners. Her explanation of how electromagnetic radiation is produced is superbly easy to visualize; she is lucid on evolution, and on intelligent design; and her chapter on molecular biology is an exemplary introduction. Science teachers should find numerous useful resources here. Instead of relying on geeks-and-gimmicks clichés — eccentric geniuses, bitter feuds and zany facts — Angier's word-painting allows the scientific material to speak for itself in some depth. Consequently, we get a real sense of science as an immense collective endeavour, comprising both established knowledge and works-in-progress, done but not entirely dominated by personalities.

This is not a cutting-edge specialist text, so its contents are likely to be familiar to Nature readers. Much is necessarily omitted; the chapter on astronomy in particular feels disappointingly slight. Nevertheless, as an introductory guide, The Canon sets the standard for science writing and deserves at least to be shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books. Its style may seem densely, even formidably, allusive at times, but Angier's gift for accessible explanation is outstanding. If any book can help the public learn to love science, this is it.

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Taylor, K. James Bond with a feather duster. Nature 447, 30–31 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/447030a

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