Science, writes Natalie Angier in The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, is methodical, never absolutely certain (scientists make models, or theories, that approximate reality but is not reality itself), dynamic, reductionist. However, people generally are not scientific because we like certainty, are naive, ill-informed, cynical, and opinionated, like to feel in control of our destiny (whatever that is), conflate correlation with causation, and are terribly anthropocentric–most of the universe is really, really large (ruled by gravity) or really, really tiny (filled with sub-atomic particles, like electrons and quarks); consequently, we have trouble with scale.
Still with me? Do you watch documentaries? (We do.) Listen to Quirks and Quarks? (We do.) Know what a quark is, or even care? (We, or at least I, do.) Then, you are a prime candidate to read The Canon.
Want to understand where we came from, who we are, what compost heap we are likely to end up on, and what’s it all about, Alfie? Want to know the basic science behind the big questions, or at least alliterate with the best of them? Want to crawl out from the cave of shadows and face the bright sunlight of truth, even if it burns? Then this book’s for you.
Even if topic bored (which never happened), or the opposite happened (you read too late past the point of make-sense), Angier’s writing scintillates. Here is a sample:
‘We know that there is life on Earth, and that at least one species,’–she means us–‘is, if not always sensible or reliable, certainly very clever at inventing tools, especially tools that allow us to engage in animated, disembodied forms of communication while simultaneously driving, jaywalking, or attending our daughter’s piano recital’ and she goes on to the search for extraterrestrial life.
But she faces an uphill battle, for first she has to climb the mountain of ignorance about terrestrial life. In the land that science built, America, land of Google, the Manhattan Project and umpteen Nobel laureates, land that landed on the Moon, why does Angier have to defend one of the most incontrovertible scientific ideas of all time, evolution? If we don’t understand evolution and the science behind it, how are we going to understand issues pressing us today, like peak oil and climate change? More importantly, how else can us pomoes increase our wonder of the universe (or multiverse)? Most importantly, how can Angier retain her job as science writer for the New York Times?
Nevertheless, she does defend it, and presents it and the rest of biology, physics, life, the universe and, gosh, everything, with her wit and great knowledge. I would read it again, but somebody else at the library wants it.