I made an abortive attempt this time last year to begin my science by women project with Dava Sobel’s A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. After that I meandered off elsewhere and left the project high and dry. No bad reflection on the book, I enjoyed it with reservations but the farther I have gotten from it the more I like it. I just got distracted. You know how that goes. So I am trying again. This time I’m restarting the project with Natalie Angier’s The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Pre-blogging I read her book Woman: An Intimate Geography and liked it very much so I had no doubt I was going to enjoy The Canon. And I did.
I already mentioned the delightfulness of learning in the physics chapter that we are basically chewing on sunshine when we eat. In the astronomy chapter I learned that we really are made of stars:
The overwhelming bulk of our mortal cargo–the carbon in our cells, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, the electrolytes of sodium and potassium that allow our hearts to beat and our cells to fire–was stoked in the furnaces of far larger stars than ours and splattered into the cosmic compost when those stars exploded. ‘We are star stuff, a part of the cosmos,’ said Alex Filippenko [a Berkeley astronomer]. ‘I’m not just speaking generically or metaphorically here. The specific atoms in every cell of your body, my body, my son’s body, the body of your pet cat, were cooked up inside massive stars.
How amazing is that?
One of the things I really liked about the book is even though Angier has separate chapters on the different sciences, more often than not they all overlapped. Physics and astronomy of course, but also astronomy and geology, geology and evolutionary biology, molecular biology and chemistry. She does a marvelous job of connecting them all together without even having to spell it out. And of course the umbrella under which all these science chapters gather is calibration (measurement), probability, and scientific thinking.
The first chapter of the book orients us to how scientists think, how they approach their subjects and research, how they make experiments and come to conclusions. Angier explains,
Science is not a body of facts. Science is a state of mind. It is a way of viewing the world, of facing reality square on but taking nothing on its face. It is about attacking a problem with the most manicured of claws and tearing it down into sensible, edible pieces.
And math, yes math is important. It is a language in which scientists describe certain phenomena. A language that can also be translated. Angier knows people are afraid of math and makes a point to talk to a variety of scientists who admit that they suck at it and that it is ok to be bad at math and still be a successful, well-respected scientist.
I wish someone had told me all this when I was in high school and starting out in college. I got A’s in math in high school but I had to work hard for them. Faced with what looked like an overwhelming amount of math classes for a degree in the sciences (biology was my declared major at first) I felt like I could never be successful and so gave up science and took the literature road. I am glad I pursued studies in literature but sometimes I think back and wonder, what if? But that’s where wonderful science books like Angier’s come in. I may not have studied science but I can still get my science geek on.
Angier writes with a sure touch and a quick pace and doesn’t talk down to the reader. She tosses in lots and lots of jokes. Sometimes the jokes got to be a bit annoying or were eye rolling bad, but for the most part they are in the service of making a point. The Canon is a great overview of science basics, all those things you learned in high school but forgot or should have learned but didn’t because you were too busy passing notes, napping or skipping class. And there are also things I didn’t learn about like proteins. I never knew what protein did, only that you’re supposed to eat it regularly for good nutrition. Now I know how incredibly important it is and what it does and let me say, it is gosh darn amazing.
I could keep babbling on about all sorts of fascinating stuff, like how the snowy interference on your TV (sans cable) is the result of cosmic microwaves created at the time of the Big Bang. But I will stop with that and just say, if you are looking for a fun and fascinating general science book to read, you can’t go wrong with The Canon.