The Canon

In The Canon, New York Times science journalist Natalie Angier sets an ambitious goal: to create an intelligent layperson's guide to scientific literacy, one that not only explains the current state of knowledge but also communicates why we should care in the first place. She succeeds by applying the skills that won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1991—thorough reporting, careful writing and a lively enthusiasm for her subject. "There's a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids like science," she writes. "Science is fun."

In wry, witty and occasionally florid prose, Angier introduces readers to the scientific method and basic probability and then presents guided tours of the basics of physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy. She illuminates each discipline by drawing on interviews with its top practitioners, and she displays everywhere a unique flair for finding familiar examples and vivid analogies.

Angier offers no conclusion to tie these threads together, which is a shame, but her own clear passion for her subject shines in every page. Why should we learn about science? "Understanding how things work feels good," she writes. "Look no further — there's your should."
— Greg Ros American Scientist: The Magazine of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society (August 2007 )


"[I]f you know nothing about the length of yoctoseconds, or why nitrous oxide makes you laugh while nitric oxide causes blood to flow to your genitals, or what astronomers mean when that talk about redshifting, you've come to the right place. Angier ... is a matchless scientific decathlete, able to perform with equal adroitness whether examining the infinitesimal or the infinite....With individual chapters devoted to physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology, and astronomy, her book provides a tour of the modern scientific horizon that seems to cover nearly everything that modern science seems to know.

Angier is at her very best when she faces down the one part of the canon that should need the least explaining: evolution. As one of the apparently dwindling number of Americans who accept Darwin as gospel (so to speak), I stood to benefit from her effort: It's always better to believe something if you fully understand it. Reading Angier's bulletproof argument, decorated as it is with an elegant collection of evidence and data, is so inspiring that you might call it a religious experience.
— Daniel Okrent, Fortune (May 14, 2007)


If nearly everything you ever learned in science class has vanished from your brain over the years, if you can no longer tell a neutron from a neutrino or recall the kreb's cycle or the second law of thermodynamics, you are hardly alone. As a Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter, Angier is confronted daily by America's science illiteracy. The Canon offers a passionate corrective. It's a lot to bite off -- the broad basics of everything from chemistry to geology to molecular biology to astrophysics — but Angier has the infectious exuberance, unflagging wit, and knack for the well-turned simile (red blood cells look like "New York City bialies") of a born teacher. A-
— Josh Rottenberg, Entertainment Weekly (May 25, 2007)


Everything you ever learned and forgot, or never learned, in high school science is here: what an atom looks like, how a cell survives, why Earth's tectonic plates move. Angier, a pulitzer-prize winning science writer for the New York Times, tells it all in chapters devoted to physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy. She writes in folksy, sometimes cutesy prose, making even the most abstruse theories accessible.

I especially liked Angier's description of the Big Bang, which, in defiance of its name, was infinitely small and made no sound at all. I appreciated her reference to Earth as the "Goldilock's planet," where everything is just right for life — not too hot, not too cold. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle comes down to, "you view it, you skew it."

"Cells are very gooey and viscous" — like snot. "Proteins live to work, and they live in a place much like Manhattan, a teeming city that never sleeps, where all counts is how you look, and what you do." I regret that Angier needs not only to explain the theories of evolution and natural selection but to defend them. She supplies the overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence that supports the theory of evolution and then gives this helpful definition of a scientific theory: "a coherent set of principles or statements that explains a large set of observations or findings [wbich] have been verified, often many times over, and are close to being 'facts' as science cares to characterize them."
— Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe (May 27, 2007)


How many ways are there to describe an electron? Well, they're "fidgety flecks," for one thing. They're also "fairy-Ariel" particles and "the most totable of motes." Oh, and let's not forget that they're "condensed fragments of the cosmos that need some reason to get out of bed in the morning" and have a habit of "rearing back at any sign of other electrons, with the territorial indignation of cats." These playful descriptions come from the imagination of Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist at the New York Times who, lucky for us, has just published a sprightly carousel ride through the world of science. "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science" comes at a time when global warming and stem-cell research grab the headlines, evolution and intelligent design wrestle in the courtrooms, and scientists bemoan the public's lack of scientific knowledge. All of this could have added up to a book with a whole lot of finger wagging at our collective ignorance (the literary equivalent of Mom yelling, "Have you done your homework?"). Thankfully, Angier isn't the scientific literacy police....[S]he just thinks science is really, really cool. "In place of civic need, why not neural greed?" she writes. "These things are fun, and fun is good."

"The Canon" starts with an introduction to the scientific process and moves at a zippy pace through probability, physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy. As promised, the book covers the basics: We find out how the universe began, the four fundamental forces of nature (not counting Donald Trump's hair, Angier notes), what lies at the core of the Earth, why proteins are more than just hamburgers and how alcohol originated. Along the way, readers will surely have a few "Really?" moments. Yes, some tiny sea creatures really do eject their brains when they've finished the "thinking" phase of their lives. Chemistry Professor Peter Atkins tells Angier, helpfully: "[I]t is a good idea to get rid of your brain when you discover you have no further need of it...." Readers will find plenty of material to apply to their own lives, whether it be interpreting the results of a medical test or understanding the statistical trend behind the Sports Illustrated jinx. For instance, if an HIV test has a 95 percent accuracy rate, does a positive test mean that you have a 95 percent chance of being infected? No, says Angier. With a few quick number tricks, she shows that, given HIV's low frequency in the overall population, you have close to a 95 percent chance of not having the disease. Fans of her "Basics" column in the New York Times will recognize many of the explanations as uniquely Angierian. Take entropy, the measure of how much energy in a system is unavailable for work. "The energy is there, but it might as well not be," writes Angier, "like a taxi passing you on a rainy night with its NOT IN SERVICE lights ablaze, or a chair in a museum with a rope draped from arm to arm, or a teenager." Bay Area poet Kim Addonizio once wrote that Sharon Olds must have a metaphor-making machine in her basement. I suspect Angier has a whole houseful of them.
— Roberta Kwok, The San Francisco Chronicle (May 13, 2007)


Quantum leap. You hear the phrase all the time, but what is it? Okay...ding!—you're a prime potential beneficiary of The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (Houghton Mifflin) by the award-winning New York Times writer Natalie Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography). Without so much as a diagram or (perish the thought!) an equation, Angier has undertaken to reacquaint us engagingly—no doubt for the first time since around prom night, in many cases—with the world that lies before our eyes.

Having hobnobbed with hundreds of the world's top scientists over the years, Angier has written a sweeping set of essays that elegantly encapsulate the major disciplines—physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy—from the atom to the Big Bang. Rare is the writer with the breadth of erudition to know not only that quark rhymes with pork, not park, but also that it derives from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, in which, not yet signifying so much as a subatomic particle, it is rhymed, perversely enough, with "Muster Mark." Angier is a nimble stylist with a playful sense of alliteration and consonance who can describe a meteor as "a wild platinum cat scratch piercing the mute tuxedo screen"—while not neglecting to remind us that a quantum leap is what an electron makes when it disappears from one atomic orbit and instantaneously pops up in another. Oh, snap! I knew that...I think.
—Ben Dickinson. Elle


"Drawing on her justificably acclaimed journalistic skills, Natalie Angier provides a masterful, authoritative synthesis of the state of knowledge across the entire scientific landscape."
—Howard Gardner, Author of FIVE MINDS FOR THE FUTURE. Harvard Graduate School of Education


"Every sentence sparkles with wit and charm. But there's passion in there too, and it all adds up to an intoxicating cocktail of fine science writing."
—Richard Dawkins, Author of THE SELFISH GENE, THE BLIND WATCHMAKER, THE GOD DELUSION. Oxford University


"Natalie Angier has a combination of gifts which make her latest book, The Canon, an essential experience. Her command of language shames the poets, her grasp of how science works exposes the joy and beauty of discovery that, I thought, belong only to the scientists. How dare she write so artfully, explain so brilliantly, rendering us scientists simultaneously proud and inarticulate!"
—Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate. Director Emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Ill.


"Finally, Nature has found a biographer who's up to the task. Every single sentence of The Canon sparkles with enough intelligence and wit to delight science-phobes and science-philes alike. I loved it!"
—Barbara Ehrenreich, Author of BAIT AND SWITCH, NICKEL AND DIMED


Popular indifference toward science regularly motivates writers to attempt mass-market enlightenment. Travel writer Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) was a best-selling smash, and Angier, better credentialed in science writing and the author of the blockbuster Woman: An Intimate Geography (1999), now makes her bid. In contrast with Bryson's fact-and-history-heavy approach, Angier's way of reaching the science-phobic relies on love of language. Angier deploys extravagantly cascading metaphors, puns, and tangents to plant awareness of central scientific concepts for those who may be vague on what causes the seasons. Covering physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and evolutionary and cell biology, Angier induces from scientists in each discipline a zeal comparable to her own for figural explanations of science. Scientific thinking, though, radically differs from our subjective experience of the natural world in a way that Angier creatively illustrates in explaining theory, probability, and scale. Some readers may find Angier's wordplay excessively indulgent, but her core audience will delight in her ecstatic exuberance for all things scientific.
—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist


Decrying smug scientific illiteracy, New York Times science writer Angier (Woman, 1999, etc.) deftly sets forth the universally accepted principles underlying basic science that everyone should understand.

This bestselling author's love of words is writ large here. Hardly a page goes by without an internal rhyme ("sires and madams we're all made of atoms"), or an unexpected adjective (a gecko with a nose of "Necco pink"), or a blunt descriptor (the living cell is squishy like snot) that sets up a what-will-she-say-next? tease. A snappy style is simply her way of making sure we pay attention as Angier presents chapters on thinking scientifically, probability, scales of measurement, physics, chemistry, evolution, molecular biology, geology and astronomy, all of them liberally laced with juicy quotes from the powerhouses she's interviewed. The chapter on evolution alone is worth it, providing ample evidence to confront creationists and their intelligent-design offspring. Against the intelligent-designers' argument of "irreducible complexity"—the idea that, for example, the intricate blood-clotting mechanism found in vertebrates is just too complex to have evolved through "clunky" natural selection—she places biologist Kenneth Miller's analysis of the far cruder and simpler clotting process in invertebrates: "exactly the kind of 'imperfect and simple' system that Darwin regarded as a starting point for evolution." Dentists will love the chapter on molecular biology, which begins with a description of the scrupulous dental hygiene Angier practices as part of her never-ending battle against the oral bacteria assaulting tooth enamel. Such graphic, homely examples serve as springboards for the deeper stuff, whether it's genetic code or the ever-expanding universe. She even makes it clear why it's hard to get your arms around the idea that galaxies are not exploding outward into space, but that space itself is stretched.

Not everything is as easy as pie (or pi) to grasp, and herein lives the excitement and challenge of science, masterfully conveyed here.
Kirkus (starred review), March 1, 2007


In the introductory essay of this exuberant book, Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Angier corrects two common misapprehensions about science. First, forget the "nerdy" image—science is fun, born of a child's innate curiosity. Second, it's not just for the intellectual elite—everybody does science, whether solving problems or just making observations. Thus, Angier sets out to depict the joys of science and to present them as something in which we all can participate. Chapters explore essential principles in the fields of statistics and probabilities, measurements and calibration, evolutionary and molecular biology, physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. She writes with such verve, humor, and warmth that even readers who may have flunked any of those subjects in high school will still be willing to give them a second chance. Also, she quotes frequently from interviews that she conducted with dozens of scientists, humanizing the work that they do. The style is so lively that the more serious goal of fostering public science literacy is easily reached. A similar book is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. Both are well worth reading. For all libraries.
Library Journal, Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany., February 1, 2007


Pulitzer-winning science writer Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography) distills everything you've forgotten from your high school science classes and more into one enjoyable book, a guide for the scientifically perplexed adult who wants to understand what those guys in lab coats on the news are babbling about, in the realms of physics, chemistry, biology, geology or astronomy. More important even than the brief rundowns of atomic theory or evolution-enlivened by interviews with scientists like Brian Greene-are the first three chapters on scientific thinking, probability and measurement. These constitute the basis of a scientific examination of the world. Understand these principles, Angier argues, and suddenly, words like "theory" and "statistically significant" have new meaning. Angier focuses on a handful of key concepts, allowing her to go into some depth on each... she eloquently asks us to attend to the universe: to really look at the stars, at the plants, at the stones around us. This is a pleasurable and nonthreatening guide for anyone baffled by science.
Publisher's Weekly (May 8, 2007)


We take our young children to science museums, then as they get older we stop. In spite of threats like global warming and avian flu, most adults have very little understanding of how the world works. So, 50 years on from CP Snow's famous 'Two Cultures' essay, is the old divide between arts and sciences deeper than ever? Here we ask a celebrity panel to answer some basic scientific questions.
—Tim Adams, Observer [Click here for full article]

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.
—Kathleen Taylor, Nature [Click here for full article]


[Angier] conveys the real substance of field after field, without distortion or dumbing down, and often her sensual descriptions (of the interior of a cell, a star or the Earth, for instance) leave the reader with images both vivid and useful. "The Canon" is an excellent introduction (or refresher) to the beautiful basics of science, and I hope it is widely read. It could make the country smarter.
—Steven Pinker, The New York Times [Click here for full article]


Carl Sagan once complained, "We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology." So it is today. A host of national debates -- from stem cell research to climate change -- require a baseline of scientific literacy. And yet even Harvard students surveyed at their commencement couldn't correctly explain why the year is divided into seasons, with hotter weather in summer than in winter. (Hint: It's the earth's tilt, not its orbit.)

As an antidote to the bad news, New York Times science writer and Pulitzer Prize-winner Natalie Angiere offers up her own witty, idiosyncratic primer on the sciences -- an exuberant Cliffs Notes for grown-ups that highlights core principles of physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy.
—Amanda Schaffer, The Washington Post [Click here for full article]