Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

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

by Natalie Angier

(Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $27.00, May, 2007)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Scientifically Proven to Entertain
Serious readers, chill. This look at physics, chemistry, and biology is for the rest of us

(Headline from the Dallas Morning News)

If you are a serious science reader, you may recognize this scenario. You settle down with the latest popular book on human origins, string theory, cosmology, brain science, or climate modeling, and a relative, friend, or significant other gives you "the look."

"You're reading what? Who cares about that stuff, anyway?"

Now instead of defensively mumbling something about the fascination to be found in your book's minutiae, you can reply smartly, "Natalie Angier does, and you should, too."

Then, if you have prepared yourself for that moment, you hand your incredulous accuser a copy of Pulitzer Prize-winner Angier's The Canon, and continue, "Here, read this!"

Before long, you will hear satisfied "hmm"s and occasional chuckles coming from the chair beside you. Your reading partner will soon interrupt with, "Did you know...?" or "Listen to this," eager to share what the book's subtitle calls, "A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science."

If you're smart, you'll swallow your impulse to be smug. Don't reply with a dismissive "I know that." Respond instead with a positive, "Yes, that's neat," and take a moment to savor Ms. Angier's lively style.

As a serious science reader, you may not find much new in the book, and there will be places where the writing will seem, as scientists often say, "too clever by half." Still, you will appreciate the author's objective to make science accessible to nonscientific readers.

The Canon begins with an introduction arguing that the excitement of science does not and should not end at adolescence. Next come chapters on thinking scientifically and the meaning of numbers in both probability ("For Whom the Bell Curves") and measurement ("Playing with Scales").

Those chapters create the same kind of anticipation for readers as a walk down the path to an amusement park gate does for thrill seekers. Next comes the "Whirligig Tour" beginning with physics, the science that underlies all the others. Chemistry follows, then evolutionary and molecular biology ("The Theory of Every Body" and "Cells and Whistles").

The book closes with chapters on the Earth ("Geology: Imagine World Pieces") and the cosmos ("Astronomy: Heavenly Creatures").

By the time they have finished their reading, your nonscientist friends will begin to understand how and why people like you relish detail. They might even go to Ms. Angier's references and pick out a few titles to try.

Then it would be your turn to ask, "You're reading what?" -- and smile.

Physicist Fred Bortz's newest book is Physics: Decade by Decade, which relates the 20th-century history of one of the sciences of Ms. Angier's Canon.