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The Canon – Natalie Angier *****
In The Canon, Natalie Angier introduces some of the fundamentals of science she argues everyone should know. The book has in mind people who struggled with or lost interest in science when they were young, and is very accessible and readable. I’m incredibly enthusiastic about this book and have no hesitation in giving it five stars.
The book covers more than I thought would be possible. After outlining what science is and how it works, Angier takes in turn physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology and astronomy, and explains in some detail four or five key ideas in each field. In the section on physics, for instance, she goes through the nature of atoms, the four fundamental forces, thermodynamics, and how electricity works.
The chapter on molecular biology is the best in the book, and here the role of DNA and how cells work are explained particularly well. Elsewhere, there is a very good section on the misunderstanding by some of the word ‘theory’ in ‘the theory of evolution'; it means a body of facts and principles which explain many things and make predictions, and not ‘hypothesis’.
Angier is so good in general in the book because she clearly appreciates why people are often put off by science, and she knows how to make it exciting. She stays clear of technical jargon and maths, which she shows are not necessary to get across what science is all about, and she is at times very funny. If there’s a small problem with the book, it’s that Angier occasionally writes quite long sentences with many sub-clauses, but this is a very minor point and does not stop the book being a great read.
Although best as a general overview for anyone coming back to science after having left it behind at school, the explanations in the book are so useful that regular readers of popular science will also get a great deal out of it. I’d highly recommend this to anyone.
Review by Matt Chorley
I am afraid I disagree with your assessment of The Canon which I thought was dreadful. The little satisfactory explanation of science in the book was so deeply buried in irrelevant similes, unnecessary alliteration, silly puns and references to (no doubt popular) contemporaneous US culture with no meaning to a UK reader that I would have given up after the first couple of chapters if I had not been preparing for a group discussion of the book. By contrast, I got far more information from The Collapse of Chaos by Cohen and Stewart, a truly well written and still entertaining book – the sophisticated jokes at the start of each chapter were thought provoking as well as amusing. Admittedly a more challenging read for anyone without a technical bent but vastly more rewarding.
It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals.
More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.
It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…
The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings.
Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.
If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…
This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.
Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.
Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…