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Q&A with Natalie Angier, by Harvey Blume, 5/13/2007

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. His interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail hblume@world.std.com.

WHEN I CALLED New York Times science writer Natalie Angier to discuss her new book, "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science," I started by asking why, in the new work, is there little of the impatience with religion she has expressed in some of her essays? In "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist," for example, she complained that for nonbelievers like herself America's "current climate of religiosity can be stifling." In "My God Problem" she challenged scientists who felt similarly to step up: "Why is it," she demanded, "that most scientists avoid criticizing religion even as they decry the supernatural mind-set?"

For a worrisome interval after I put my question to her the phone line went silent. Then Angier slowly and deliberately replied: "I don't want to be known as a professional atheist. I don't want to have that be my full-time job. I've been a science writer my whole career, trying to elucidate the ideas of science. That's what I think makes life worth living." And in any case, she added, excess religiosity hardly explains why Americans are badly educated, not just about science, but, "go down the list -- about history, geography, literature, and philosophy."

In "The Canon," Angier agitates energetically for scientific literacy by highlighting key elements of scientific thinking, and by devoting chapters to, as she puts it, the "sciences generally awarded the preamble 'hard.'" The chapter on astronomy, for example, centers on the ineffable instant in which our universe blossomed out of the Big Bang. The section on molecular biology features a reprise of the high-speed commotion that prevails within a human cell even before it's time to split the DNA and divide.

And one finds that Angier's polemical edge, when she cares to display it, is as keen as ever: She writes, for example, that proponents of creationism and/or intelligent design strike her as subscribing to sadly "data-deprived ideologies."

IDEAS: What was your goal with "The Canon"?

ANGIER: In order to follow science, even in the newspapers, you have to have some confidence that you get the basic lay of the land, the geography of the scientific continent. I was trying to convey the basic ideas behind scientific thinking in a way people would understand.

IDEAS: Is there any special reason why Americans are poorly educated in science?

ANGIER: Our obsession with money plays into it. I think there is some truth to David Baltimore's observation that people used to making a lot of money don't get that interested in science, science being a sort of blue-collar profession that requires a lot of hands-on work and that is probably not going to make you rich.

IDEAS: Is writing easy for you?

ANGIER: No. Mostly it's a question of trying to quiet the dybbuks -- all the voices that tell you you're no good, you can't do it, every kind of criticism you can come up with. You're just trying to shut them up and let yourself go. I'd say I spend 50 percent of my time trying to get them out of the way. There are times when I do enjoy writing, but they are definitely in a minority.

IDEAS: Your writing has a lot of imagery and wordplay. Why?

ANGIER: When I write I go into an almost stream-of-consciousness way of looking at things. Do I think that way when I'm not writing? Sometimes. I try to understand things metabolically, by really digesting it, having it on a gut level, feeling it's inside you. I always try to get that for myself in grappling with various topics. When I write I try to get someone to go through that process with me, investigating the material from the inside out.

IDEAS: It feels as though the imagery allows you to assert your femininity as a science writer. Is that so?

ANGIER: No, it's not about a concern with femininity. It's about trying to feel some kind of passion. Don't you want to have a more heightened experience? Isn't that what you're always reaching for? It's what I'm always reaching for, in the way I look at the world and in the way I write. It's the same with my attempts at humor. The goal is to expand and rejoice as opposed to being an unhappy, angry person, which I am by nature. And when you can play around with language, it takes care of the fear, somehow.

IDEAS: When it comes to the situation of women in the sciences, do you see progress?

ANGIER: I've looked at the roster of the National Academy of Sciences to see what percentage of new members are women. In one piece I did for the Times, I saw signs of progress. But women have to continue to fight because you do have people like Larry Summers who comes along and casually says, Oh, here's a provocative question we shouldn't be afraid to ask. Why are there so few women at the genius level in science? Is it because they're inferior in science? Or is it maybe because they're not driven as much as men are? Anyway, let's talk about it. This gets thrown out there, and it's one more thing we have to deal with. Do we really need Larry Summers shooting from the lip?

IDEAS: In writing about the Big Bang, you convey how amazing it was. But isn't it a cold kind of amazement? How are we supposed to feel about the origin of the universe? How is it supposed to matter in our lives?

ANGIER: Well, the fact that the Big Bang leads to intelligent life says something fundamental about the nature of matter and energy, I think, and its tendency to form complex patterns. I have this debate with my colleague Dennis Overbye, who argues that the universe is cold, the universe doesn't care.

IDEAS: You don't agree?

ANGIER: No. I think he's setting himself apart from the universe. I say to Dennis, do you believe your life is meaningless? He says, no. Do you believe you're part of the universe? He says, yes. So how can you say the universe has no meaning? You are meaning, you are part of it. I think it's legitimate to see the universe as wanting to know itself.

IDEAS: Are you saying that we were intended from the beginning?

ANGIER: Was the universe stewing on us for the last 13.4 billion years? No. But it's the outcome. We're here. It's a cold fact that we're here, and we are incorrigible meaning-generators.

Of course, I also believe, with no evidence, that there are many other civilizations like ours out there, so you could say the universe is filled with meaning. But did the universe intend that at the beginning? [laughs] As a meaning-generating character I can confidently say I don't think so.

But let's just say that we decide -- and it would be a great thing to decide -- that our purpose in life is to understand the universe. We've done a spectacular job so far, and have a lot more work to do. I really wish we were doing that instead of spending a trillion dollars on the Iraq war. I really wish we could figure out how to get to the point where most of us wish that. Will we get to that point? I don't know.

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Publisher's Weekly

Angier Dives in Again, by Marcela Valdes, 3/5/2007

Natalie Angier has spent the past 26 years translating jargon-filled scientific research into prose any adult can understand—picking up a Pulitzer Prize and a Lewis Thomas Award along the way.

She is the kind of woman you wish you'd had beside you in high school chemistry—tiny, ferociously intelligent, she'd eye you over a boiling beaker and explain exactly what the experiment was all about.

"I tend to want to write about things that people don't know that they should know," she says. Things like why the world has so many cockroaches; how the clitoris keeps peace among bonobo apes; and what happens in the high-pressure environment of research labs." Angier's latest foray into the world of scientific explanation, The Canon: A Whirling Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (Houghton Mifflin, May), began with a deceptively modest proposal: she'd write a charming introduction to the most important ideas in physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy. Sitting in her home in Takoma Park, Md., in a sunny office crammed with artwork, books and an enormous L-shaped desk, Angier now marvels at her own naïveté.

"I thought, It's going to be almost like a flip book. Just bulleted things. Ha!" she laughs. "But you can't give just little squibby things." To really understand the ideas, readers need not just facts, which anyone can find on the Internet. They need an overarching narrative that pulls facts and ideas together into a cohesive whole. So Angier ditched the easy format and began the difficult work of researching and understanding the fundamental ideas of hard science.

Then she labored just as hard to make our understanding of those ideas a snap. The result is a volume of nine chapters, each with the explanatory power of a whole book, each easily consumed in lazy weekend afternoon.

Can We Please Move Back?

Angier's first love wasn't equations or electrons: it was New York City. Born in 1958, Angier was raised in the Bronx at a time when the borough was in dramatic transition.

"It was like West Side Story," she recalls. The older Jewish immigrant community was fleeing. The Irish, Italian, African-American and Puerto Rican teenagers were forming gangs.

Angier didn't fit comfortably into any of those religious or ethnic groups. Her mother is Jewish. Her father was, serially, Protestant, Catholic and Buddhist. She became a devout atheist.

But whatever troubles Angier experienced living in the Bronx, they were outweighed by the pleasures of living in the Big Apple during the Age of Aquarius. Every weekend, the Angier family went into Manhattan, joining be-ins and concerts in Central Park, visiting museums. Angier keeps a photograph from that time hanging in her dining room: it shows the author, her parents and two of her three siblings sitting in a small living room decorated with drippy candles, a Japanese burial figure and an astrology chart. Two guns mounted on the wall hint at the Angiers' long American history: they've fought in every American war since the Revolution. Angier's father did his stint in the army in WWII, and was given "an honorable discharge with a diagnosis of borderline personality, borderline schizophrenia, whatever they called it back then," Angier says. For years he worked as a machinist at Otis Elevator Company—a job he hated—while Angier's mother taught math in Bronx public schools.

"My parents always had a very rocky relationship," she says. Her father could be violent. Still, Angier was devastated when they split when she was 12, partly because Angier's mother moved her and her younger brother to the small town of New Buffalo, Mich. "I wept nonstop for the entire 18-hour" train ride, Angier once wrote. She wasn't any happier once the train reached the station. In New Buffalo, the hippie child from New York seemed like an urban weirdo. And the underfunded high school couldn't keep her challenged.

She skipped two grades.

"I was begging [my mother] the whole time: 'Can we move back to New York?' " Angier remembers. But they stayed until she won a scholarship to the University of Michigan—a fact that still makes her angry. In 1977, her father died of cancer. Angier blames the state for keeping her away from him for the last eight years of his life.

No Hawk Watching

The one time Angier was grateful for Michigan may have been during her 1980 interview with Discover editor Leon Jaroff. By that point, Angier had transferred to and graduated from Barnard College in Manhattan. (Her degree was in English lit, with a minor in physics and astronomy.) She'd also spent two years trying to find a career that combined science and art. Her drawings were too shaky for architecture school. A job writing computer software evaporated when the company folded. She'd been out of work for a month when she heard that Time Inc. was starting a general-interest magazine about science—but her only experience in journalism was a brief spell at UMichigan's school newspaper.

"Well," Jaroff said, "anyone who wrote for the Michigan Daily is good enough for me." He himself had edited the newspaper while he was a student in Ann Arbor.

Discover magazine turned Angier into a reporter, forcing her to overcome her natural shyness and teaching her how to research and organize a story. Of particular importance to her were the lessons of editor Jesse Birnbaum, who drilled Angier in the rules of the magazine's legendary style.

"He taught me the sin of using clichés," Angier says. "I remember I was writing a story about the Westinghouse talent search kids and I used something like 'watched like a hawk.' Jesse saw that in my copy, and he was not just angry, he was screaming: 'Never, never do that again.' " On better days, Birnbaum encouraged Angier's use of wordplay and metaphor, which are now a hallmark of her work.

Screaming or praising, the lessons paid off. By 1985 Angier had become a senior science writer for Time and sold her first book, Natural Obsessions: Striving to Unlock the Deepest Secrets of the Cancer Cell, to the late Peter Davison, who took the project with him when he moved from Atlantic to Houghton Mifflin.

Angier had written hundreds of articles by that point; still, she found the writing process as grueling as swimming an ocean, she says. "When you're in the middle of writing a book, there's no horizon. It's all just all around you." The only thing that kept her going was that she'd already spent the advance.

After that first experience, Angier wasn't eager to write another book. Her second volume, The Beauty of the Beastly: New Views of the Nature of Life (1995), contained mostly essays reprinted from articles she wrote for the New York Times, where she'd taken a job in 1990 and won a Pulitzer for beat reporting in 1991. Angier did eventually write a second book, the 1999 National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller Woman: An Intimate Geography. It's sold 200,000 copies in U.S. and has been translated into some 20 languages.

Swimming Hours

Angier's husband, Rick Weiss, is also a science writer (for the Washington Post). Before they fell in love, they were both finalists for the New York Times job that Angier landed. But now they're not competitive, but supportive, Angier says. Weiss even helped Angier with the preliminary interviewing for The Canon. "When I wrote some of the early versions of it, I actually used the pronoun 'we,' " Angier says, although eventually she opted for her usual first-person voice.

Relations are somewhat more complicated with Angier's 10-year-old daughter, Katherine. "She wants to think of me as someone whose main job in life is facilitating her wonderfulness, rather than think of me as someone with an entire career," Angier says. Someday, she hopes, Katherine will feel proud of everything her mother's accomplished. In the meantime, though, Angier's making compromises. First among them: she'll try to finish swimming her oceans before dinner.

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Library Journal

By Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany — March 1, 2007

When science journalist Natalie Angier was a student at Barnard College, she dreamed of starting a popular science magazine for intelligent lay readers. Instead, in 1980 she became a founding staff member of Discover magazine, where she specialized in writing about biology. In 1990, she joined the New York Times as a science writer and won the Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting in 1991. This May, her fourth book will be published by Houghton. The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (LJ 2/1/07) takes an "exuberant" look at the joys of doing science.

Q: How do you define the term science literacy?

A: If you meet someone at a party who tells you that he or she is a scientist, and you don't run off screaming but instead ask questions about the researcher's work, then you are scientifically literate. You don't need to have a detailed understanding of that person's field. Science literacy, in my view, is simply a matter of feeling comfortable enough with science to want to take a peek behind the curtain.

Q: I flunked my high school science courses. Can I hope to be science literate?

A: Did you really flunk all your science courses? I ask this only partly in jest. I and many of the scientists I interviewed have heard this lament from the public an untold number of times. Jackie Barton, a professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, has marveled that nobody in the United States appears to have gotten say, a B- or C+, in chemistry. A few people, like her students, aced their high school chemistry, she said, while everybody else just "flunked" it. And in that casual proclamation of utter failure, she said, people just as casually shrug off the entire scientific enterprise and their capacity or desire to claim it as their own. Which is really too bad because science belongs to all of us. We pay for it with our taxes, and we live it with our lives.

Of course, you can learn, at any age, what we know about how the world works, the approximate, provisional portrait of the universe and its parts that science has to offer. You can also learn how much we don't know. If you feel ignorant about science, take heart: scientists feel ignorant and incompetent all the time. For them, however, ignorance is the best possible excuse—not to give up or walk away but to do more science. Most of them are incorrigible optimists, and their optimism has a way of rubbing off on those who follow what they're doing. Here, then, is another good reason to delve into science: it just may restore your faith in the human race.

Q: In The Canon, you write that, contraryto popular impressions, science in fun. How so?

A: Some scientists compare it to cooking, others to solving puzzles, still others to playing a game, an intellectually bracing game like chess or Mastermind, which features in my first chapter as a metaphor for science. For nonscientists like myself, science is fun because it's rich in ideas. I also find it oddly comforting. We're mortal. We're stuck on one roundish rock that's circumnavigating one middle-aged, middling-massed star admidst a swirling carousel of a galaxy, yet we've managed to sketch out a decent first-pass map of the entire visible universe.

Q: What are some of the tricks and techniques of writing about science for nonscientists?

A: Good science writing is no different than any other sort of good writing. You must be clear. Other techniques that are particularly important in science writing: be specific, give examples, use analogies, and whenever possible, imagine the invisible thing as it might be if it were visible. For example, I asked a biologist what a cell would look like if it were blown up big enough to place on her desk. Her extremely vivid reply: snot.

Q: You interviewed dozens of scientists for this book. Whom did you find to be the most engaging?

A: I loved going out in the field with the geologist Kip Hodges and getting very, very chilled while perching on a big boulder that looked like a giant chunk of chocolate chip cookie dough and that dated back half a billion years. I loved hearing about the universe from astronomer William Blair, who used a roll of toilet paper to illustrate the passage of time. In retrospect, I even loved it when Scott Strobel tried to force me to learn to play Mastermind, and guess what? I flunked. But from that experience came my opening chapter, and for a writer, nothing is more lovable than that.

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