Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Canon: The Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier

I am 3.5 billion years old. More about that in a moment.

In the opening pages of The Canon: The Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, author Natalie Angier rues the attitudes that parents, educators, and other common folk often express about science. They say things like "We know it is hard, but just bear with it" to their children, passing on their prejudices. She contends that most children like science until adults dissuade them with their apologies and the dry ways that they teach. Wondering about how the world works is naturally interesting until young minds are worn down with standardized assignments and deadlines.

Believing the kids do not stand a chance until adults are re-educated, she takes readers through a tour of all the sciences in The Canon, starting with mathematics and statistics. Here she starts with her many splendid science stories and observations that awe and entertain. One of the sections that I liked best was about numbers and the age of the earth. She holds that the earth is really quite young, which may be hard to believe considering that it is 5.7 billion years. She points out that the number is not unimaginably large. Take the ages of all people currently living and add them up, and the formation of the earth can be reached over twenty times. Our body surfaces have more than 5.7 billion bacteria cell on them. What's the big deal about 5.7 billion?

Throughout the text, Angier is enthusiastic and entertaining. She talks about the three kinds of dental floss she uses, vividly describes the inside of the planet, and gives the best explanation of the expanding universe and the end of time that I've ever heard. In telling about the wines ancient civilizations drank to keep from getting water-borne diseases, she says "Better tipsy than typhoid." Her accounts of chemical reactions with their affairs, partners, and bonds is definitely for the mature reader.

As I said before, I am 3.5 billion years old. So are you. According to Angier, it was about 3.5 billion years ago that the first single cell organisms appeared, and the DNA within them evolved to form all the life that followed. All of the code from our initial and intermediate ancestors is still in our DNA. Life has never died out in that time, and we are the continuation of what went before. We are not really individuals. We are communities.

Angier spends a good bit of time explaining evolution and how the word "theory" does not mean the scientists are just guessing. She is 100 percent behind evolution and contends that any good scientist is as well. There is no doubt.

I listen to the audiobook brightly read by Nike Doukas over the course of a couple of weeks. I recommend it for making the drive to work and dusting the house entertaining.

Angier, Natalie. The Canon: The Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Houghton Mifflin, 2007. ISBN 9780618242955

11 compact discs. HighBridge Audio, 2007. ISBN 9781598870893

1 comment:

Maggie said...

I loved this book, Rick! I'm glad to see another reader likes it, too. :)