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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Department of Book Reports 21 Gun Salute

In her very entertaining new book The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (Houghton Mifflin $27.00), Natalie Angier really wants us to like science. Angier, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting in 1991, regularly writes on biology for the New York Times. And, as she complains, while many of her peers pay lip service to science writing, many of her colleagues are not even aware of what day of the week the Science News appears as a section in the NYT. (It’s Tuesday). This book tries to get those of us who are science-challenged, to get up to speed on the world and universe around us.

She achieves her goal. Now, while I can’t claim to have become science-literate from having read the book, I have learned a great deal. Angier systematically, and with great humor and fresh examples, takes us on her tour. She explains what we mean by “science”, offers the basics of “probabilities” and “calibration” (I love that word), before explaining the physics (the foundation of all the sciences), chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy. She neatly blends in interviews with scientists that add other voices to her overview. She brooks no fools and takes on those folk who think the universe was created some 6000 years ago.

Angier writes with great wit and charm. One example: discussing the fabled ‘Quantum Leap’, where an electron moves from one permissible shell to another in its orbit around the nucleus, she writes “The expression quantum leap long ago found its way into popular language, usually to mean something like ‘a really big change’ or ‘ a great jump forward’, and though some people have griped that it’s a misuse of language because the distance between electron shells is so vanishingly small, I’d say the criticism is misplaced. Quantity notwithstanding, a genuine quantum leap is qualitatively spectacular, a bit of Bewitched without the insufferable husband”. The conversational style helps the reader to grasp the principles and beauty of the scientific outlook and mind.

At her best, Angier’s passion is contagious. Now let me at Brief History of Time! This book succeeds at every (quantum) level as a gateway to the marvels of science.

The Canon is available at Jackson Street Books and other fine independent bookstores.

democommie™™™™®© was way too busy with his chemistry kit to be able to contribute to this report. Let's hope he doesn't blow up again.

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.