Sunday, 11 April 2010

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.
Community review by Keith Jeremiah

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