The Canon A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
By Natalie Angier
Houghton Mifflin Company Copyright © 2007 Natalie Angier
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-618-24295-5
Sisyphus Sings with a Ying
When the second of her two children turned thirteen, my sister decided that it finally was time to let their membership lapse in two familiar family haunts: the science museum and the zoo. These were kiddie places, she told me. Her children now had more mature tastes. They liked refined forms of entertainment - art museums, the theater, ballet. Isn't that something? My sister's children's bodies were lengthening, and so were their attention spans. They could sit for hours at a performance of Macbeth without so much as checking the seat bottom for fossilized wads of gum. No more of this mad pinball pinging from one hands-on science exhibit to the next, pounding on knobs to make artificial earthquakes, or cranking gears to see Newton's laws in motion, or something like that; who bothers to read the explanatory placards anyway? And, oops, hmm, hey, Mom, this thing seems to have stopped working! No more aping the gorillas or arguing over the structural basis of a polar bear's white coat or wondering about the weird goatee of drool gathering on the dromedary's chin. Sigh. How winged are the slippers of time, how immutably forward point their dainty steel-tipped toe boxes. And how common is thismiddle-class rite of passage into adulthood: from mangabeys to Modigliani, T. rex to Oedipus Rex.
The differential acoustics tell the story. Zoos and museums of science and natural history are loud and bouncy and notably enriched with the upper registers of the audio scale. Theaters and art museums murmur in a courteous baritone, and if your cell phone should bleat out a little Beethoven chime during a performance, and especially should you be so barbaric as to answer it, other members of the audience have been instructed to garrote you with a rolled-up Playbill. Science appreciation is for the young, the restless, the Ritalined. It's the holding-pattern fun you have while your gonads are busy ripening, and the day that an exhibit of Matisse vs. Picasso in Paris exerts greater pull than an Omnimax movie about spiders is the debutante's ball for your brain. Here I am! Come and get me! And don't forget your Proust!
Naturally enough, I used the occasion of my sister's revelation about lapsing memberships to scold her. Whaddya talking about, giving up on science just because your kids have pubesced? Are you saying that's it for learning about nature? They know everything they need to know about the universe, the cell, the atom, electromagnetism, geodes, trilobites, chromosomes, and Foucault pendulums, which even Stephen Jay Gould once told me he had trouble understanding? How about those shrewdly coquettish optical illusions that will let you see either a vase or two faces in profile, but never, ever two faces and a vase, no matter how hard you concentrate or relax or dart your eyes or squint like Humphrey Bogart or command your perceptual field to stop being so archaically serial and instead learn to multitask? Are your kids really ready to leave these great cosmic challenges and mysteries behind? I demanded. Are you?
My voice hit a shrill note, as it does when I'm being self-righteous, and my sister is used to this and replied with her usual shrug of common sense. The membership is expensive, she said, her kids study plenty of science in school, and one of them has talked of becoming a marine biologist. As for her own needs, my sister said, there's always PBS. Why was I taking this so personally?
Because I'm awake, I muttered. Give me a chance, and I'll take the jet stream personally.
My bristletail notwithstanding, I couldn't fault my sister for deciding to sever one of the few connections she had to the domain of human affairs designated Science. Good though the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry may be, it is undeniably geared toward visitors young enough to appreciate such offerings as the wildly popular "Grossology" show, a tour through the wacky world of bodily fluids and functions.
Childhood, then, is the one time of life when all members of an age cohort are expected to appreciate science. Once junior high school begins, so too does the great winnowing, the relentless tweezing away of feather, fur, fun, the hilarity of the digestive tract, until science becomes the forbidding province of a small priesthood - and a poorly dressed one at that. A delight in "Grossology" gives way to a dread of grossness. In this country, adolescent science lovers tend to be fewer in number than they are in tedious nicknames: they are geeks, nerds, eggheads, pointy-heads, brainiacs, lab rats, the recently coined aspies (for Asperger's syndrome); and, hell, why not "peeps" (pocket protectors) or "dogs" (duct tape on glasses) or "losers" (last ones selected for every sport)? Nonscience teenagers, on the other hand, are known as "teenagers," except among themselves, in which case, regardless of gender, they go by an elaboration on "guys" - as in "you guys," "hey, guys" or "hey, you guys." The you-guys generally have no trouble distinguishing themselves from geeks bearing beakers; but should any questions arise, a teenager will hasten to assert his or her unequivocal guyness, as I learned while walking behind two girls recently who looked to be about sixteen years old.
Girl A asked Girl B what her mother did for a living.
"Oh, she works in Bethesda, at the NIH," said Girl B, referring to the National Institutes of Health. "She's a scientist."
"Huh," said Girl A. I waited for her to add something like "Wow, that's awesome!" or "Sweet!" or "Kewl!" or "Schnitzel with noodles!" and maybe ask what sort of science this extraordinary mother studied. Instead, after a moment or two, Girl A said, "I hate science."
"Yeah, well, you can't, like, pick your parents," said Girl B, giving her beige hair a quick, contemptuous flip. "Anyway, what are you guys doing this weekend?"
As youth flowers into maturity, the barrier between nerd and herd grows taller and thicker and begins to sprout thorns. Soon it seems nearly unbreachable. When my hairstylist told me he was planning to visit Puerto Rico, where I'd been the previous summer, and I recommended that he visit the Arecibo radio telescope on the northwestern side of the island, he looked at me as though I'd suggested he stop by a manufacturer of laundry detergent. "Why on earth would I want to do that?" he asked.
"Because it's one of the biggest telescopes in the world, it's open to the public, and it's beautiful and fascinating and looks like a giant mirrored candy dish from the 1960s lodged in the side of a cliff?" I said.
"Huh," he said, taking a rather large snip of hair from my bangs.
"Because it has a great science museum to go with it, and you'll learn a lot about the cosmos?"
"I'm not one of those techie types, you know," he said. Snip snip snip snip snip.
"Because it was featured in the movie Contact, with Jodie Foster?" I groped frantically.
The steel piranhas could not be stilled. "I've never been a big Jodie Foster fan," he said. "But I'll take it under advisement."
"Hi, honey!" my husband said when I got home. "Where did you put your hair?"
In truth, I pull it out myself just fine, all the time. How could it be otherwise? I am a science writer. I've been one for decades, for my entire career, and I admit it: I love science. I started loving it in childhood, during trips to the American Museum of Natural History, and then I temporarily misplaced that love when I went to a tiny high school in New Buffalo, Michigan, where the faculty was so strapped for money that one person was expected to teach biology, chemistry, and history before dashing off for his real job as the football coach. The overstretched fellow never lost his sense of humor, though. One morning, as I approached his desk to present him with my biology project, a collection of some two dozen insects pinned to cardboard, I noticed that the praying mantis, the scarab beetle, and the hawk moth were not quite dead, were in fact wriggling around desperately on their stakes. I screamed a girlish stream of obscenities and dropped the whole thing on the floor. My teacher grinned at me, his eyes merrily bug-eyed, and said he couldn't wait until it was time for me to dissect the baby pig.
In college I rediscovered my old flame, science, and it was still blazing Bunsen burner blue. I took many science courses, even as I continued to think of myself primarily as a writer, and even as my fellow writers wondered why I bothered with all the physics, calculus, computers, astronomy, and paleontology. I wondered myself, for I was hardly a natural in the laboratory. I studied, I hammered, I nattered, I plucked out my hairs, but I kept at it.
"Well, aren't you a little C. P. Snow White and the Two Cultures," said a friend. "What's your point with these intellectual hybridization experiments, anyway?"
"I don't know," I said. "I like science. I trust it. It makes me feel optimistic. It adds rigor to my life."
He asked why I didn't just become a scientist. I told him I didn't want to ruin a beautiful affair by getting married. Besides, I wouldn't be a very good scientist, and I knew it.
So you'll be a professional dilettante, he said.
Close enough. I became a science writer.
So now, at last, I come to the muscle of the matter, or is it the gristle, or the wishbone, the skin and pope's nose? I have been a science writer for a quarter of a century, and I love science, but I have also learned and learned and not forgotten but have nevertheless been forced to relearn just how unintegrated science is into the rest of human affairs, how stubbornly apart from the world it remains, and how persistent is the image of the rare nerd, the idea that an appreciation of science is something to be outgrown by all but those with, oddly enough, overgrown brains. Here is a line I have heard many times through the years, whenever I've mentioned to somebody what I do for a living: "Science writing? I haven't followed science since I flunked high school chemistry." (Or, a close second, "... since I flunked high school physics.") Jacqueline Barton, a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology, has also heard these lines, and she has expressed her wry amusement at the staggering numbers of people who, by their own account, were not merely mediocre chemistry students, but undiluted failures. Even years of grade inflation cannot dislodge the F as the modal grade in the nation's chemistry consciousness.
Science writing, too, has remained a kind of literary and journalistic ghetto, set apart either physically, as it is in the weekly science section of the New York Times, or situationally, as it is by being ignored in most places, most of the time, no matter how high the brow. Ignored by Harper's, ignored by the Atlantic, ignored by, yes, The New Yorker, ignored by the upscale cyberzines like Salon despite the presumably parageek nature of their audience. I've seen reader surveys showing that, of all the weekly pull-out sections in the New York Times, the most popular is "Science Times," which runs on Tuesdays. Yet I also know, because I have been told by kindhearted friends and relations, that many people discard the whole section up front and unthumbed. Some of those preemptive ejectors even work for the New York Times. Several years ago, when the woman who was then the science editor of the New York Times asked the man who was then the chief editor of the entire paper to please, please, give the science staff some words of appreciation for all their good work, the chief editor sent a memo assuring the staff how much he looked forward to "Science Times" ... every Wednesday. When I first started writing for the newspaper, and I introduced myself as a science reporter to the columnist William Safire, he said, "So I would be likely to read you on Thursdays, right?" Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate, told me I should have replied, "Sure, Bill, if you read the paper forty-eight hours late."
Oy, it hurts! How could it not? Nobody wants to feel irrelevant or marginal. Nobody wants to feel that she's failed, unless she's in a high school chemistry class, in which case everybody does. Yet I'll admit it. I feel that I've failed any time I hear somebody say, Who cares, or Who knows, or I just don't get it. When a character on the otherwise richly drawn HBO series Six Feet Under announces that she's planning to take a course in "biogenetics" and her boyfriend replies, Bo-o-ring. Why on earth are you doing that? I take it personally. Wait a minute! Hasn't the guy heard that we're living in the Golden Age of Biology? Would he have found Periclean Athens bo-o-ring too? When my father-in-law finishes reading something I've written about genes and cancer cells and says he found it fascinating but then asks me, "Which is bigger, a gene or a cell?" I think, Uh-oh, I really blew it. If I didn't make clear the basic biofact that while cells are certainly very small, each one is big enough to hold the entire complement of our 25,000 or so genes - as well as abundant bundles of tagalong genetic sequences, the function of which remains unknown - then what good am I? And when a copy editor, in the course of going over a story I've written about whale genetics, asks me to confirm the suggestions in my text that (a) whales are mammals and (b) mammals are animals, I think, Uh-oh, but this time in bold, twenty-six-point, panic-stricken type. Woe, woe, nobody knows anything about science. Woe, woe, nobody cares.
Am I sounding self-pitying, a sour-grapes-turned-defensive whine? Of course: a good offense begins with a nasal defensiveness. If I was going to write a book about the scientific basics, I had to believe that there was a need for such a book, and I do. If I believed there is a need for a primer, a guided whirligig through the scientific canon, then obviously I must believe there to be a large block of unprimed real estate in the world, vast prairies and deep arroyos of scientific ignorance and scientific illiteracy and technophobia and eyes glazing over and whales having their nursing privileges rescinded. In the civic imagination, science is still considered dull, geeky, hard, abstract, and, conveniently, peripheral, now, perhaps, more than ever. In a 2005 survey of 950 British students ages thirteen through sixteen, for example, 51 percent said they thought science classes were "boring," "confusing," or "difficult" - feelings that intensified with each year of high school. Only 7 percent thought that people working in science were "cool," and when asked to pick out the most famous scientist from a list of names that included Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, many respondents instead chose Christopher Columbus.
Scientists are quick to claim mea culpas, to acknowledge that they bear some responsibility for the public allergy toward their profession.
We've failed, they say. We've been terrible at communicating our work to the masses, and we're pathetic when it comes to educating our nation's youth. We've been too busy with our own work. We have to publish papers. We have to write grant proposals. We're punished by "the system," the implacable academic track that rewards scientists for focusing on research to the exclusion of everything else, including teaching or public outreach or writing popular books that get made into Nova specials. Besides, very few of us are as tele-elegant as Brian "String King" Greene, are we? All of which amounts to: guilty as charged. We haven't done our part to enlighten the laity.
A fair question to interject here is: Need we do anything at all? Does it matter if the great majority of people know little or nothing about science or the scientific mindset? If the average Joe or Sophie doesn't know the name of the closest star (the sun), or whether tomatoes have genes (they do), or why your hand can't go through a tabletop (because the electrons in each repel each other), what difference does it make? Let the specialists specialize. A heart surgeon knows how to repair an artery, a biologist knows how to run a gel, a jet pilot knows how to illuminate the fasten seat belt sign at the exact moment you've decided to get up and go to the bathroom. Why can't the rest of us clip our coupons and calories in peace?
The arguments for greater scientific awareness and a more comfortable relationship with scientific reasoning are legion, and many have been flogged so often they're beginning to wheeze. A favorite thesis has it that people should know more about science because many of the vital issues of the day have a scientific component: think global warming, alternative energy, embryonic stem cell research, missile defense, the tragic limitations of the dry cleaning industry. Hence, a more scientifically sophisticated citizenry would be expected to cast comparatively wiser votes for Socratically wise politicians. They would demand that their elected representatives know the differences between a blastocyst, a fetus, and an orthodontist, and that one is a five-day-old, hollow ball of cells from which coveted stem cells can be extracted and theoretically inveigled to grow into the body tissue or organ of choice; the next is a developing prenate that has implanted in the mother's uterus; and the third is never covered by your company's dental plan.
Excerpted from The Canon by Natalie Angier Copyright © 2007 by Natalie Angier . Excerpted by permission.
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