The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

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

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

by Natalie Angier



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The New York Times bestseller that makes scientific subjects both understandable and fun: “Every sentence sparkles with wit and charm.” —Richard Dawkins
From the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times science journalist and bestselling author of Woman, this is a playful, passionate guide to the science all around us (and inside us)—from physics to chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, and more.
Drawing on conversations with hundreds of the world’s top scientists, Natalie Angier creates a thoroughly entertaining guide to scientific literacy. For those who want a fuller understanding of some of the great issues of our time, The Canon offers insights on stem cells, bird flu, evolution, and global warming. For students—or parents whose kids ask a lot of questions about how the world works—it brings to life such topics as how the earth was formed, or what electricity is. Also included are clear, fascinating explanations of how to think scientifically and grasp the tricky subject of probability.
The Canon is a joyride through the major scientific disciplines that reignites our childhood delight and sense of wonder—and along the way, tells us what is actually happening when our ice cream melts or our coffee gets cold, what our liver cells do when we eat a caramel, why the horse is an example of evolution at work, and how we’re all really made of stardust.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547348568
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 420,380
File size: 994 KB

About the Author

NATALIE ANGIER is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science columnist for the New York Times. She is the author of The Canon, The Beauty of the Beastly, and Natural Obsessions. She lives outside Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt


Thinking Scientifically

An Out-of-Body Experience

Scott Strobel, a biochemist at Yale University, is tall, tidy, and boyishly severe, his complexion a polished apple, his jaw ajut, his hair a sergeant's clipped command. He looks athletic. He keeps pictures of his three beaming children on his desk. I am not surprised to learn that he graduated summa cum laude from Brigham Young University. He might be good company at a family picnic, but on this fluorescent-enhanced midweek morning, as we sit around his office coffee table engaged in what he has deemed a form of constructive entertainment, Strobel is about as much fun as an oncologist.

Strobel has taken out his personal kit of Mastermind, a game I had never seen before and knew nothing about. He often plays the game with the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab. They love it. So, I later discovered, do my husband and daughter. Now Strobel is teaching me to play Mastermind, but of the many words competing for the tip of my tongue, "love" is not one of them.

In Mastermind, he explains, you try to divine your opponent's hidden sequence of four colored pegs by shuffling your own colored pegs among peg holes. If you guess a correct color in the correct position, your opponent inserts a black peg on his side of the board; a correct color in an incorrect position gets you a white peg; and the wrong color for any position earns you no peg at all. Your goal is to end up with four black pegs on your adversary's end in as few rounds as possible.

"Got it?" he says, pushing the board in my direction.

"I never really liked games," I plead. "Don't you have any nice slide presentations instead?" "I have a point to make with this," he says. "Go ahead."

Without a tornado or the sudden onset of pneumococcal pneumonia to deliver me, I sigh and arrange my pegs in a pleasant police lineup of blue, red, yellow, green. Strobel responds in a pattern of blacks, whites, and blanks. I lunge with a red piece, he parries by plucking off a white peg. Green here? Sorry, dear. I'm trying my best, but I have a wooden ear for the game, and I make bad choices and no progress. I fight back tears, which fecklessly leap to freedom as sweat. I curse Strobel and all scientists who ever lived, especially the inventor of the pegboard.

Finally, Strobel takes pity on me. "Well, I think you get the idea," he says. He sweeps the malignant little pins back into their box, and I lapse into limp remission.

Mastermind, he declares, is "a microcosm for how science works." By insisting I play the game, he was trying to impress on me an essential truth about science. And while the dramady at Strobel's gaming table was not my favorite hour, in its intensity and memorability it reflects the strength with which scientists, whatever their specialty, agree with this truth.

Science is not a body of facts. Science is a state of mind. It is a way of viewing the world, of facing reality square on but taking nothing on its face. It is about attacking a problem with the most manicured of claws and tearing it down into sensible, edible pieces.

Even more than the testimonials to the fun of science, I heard the earnest affidavit that science is not a body of facts, it is a way of thinking. I heard these lines so often they began to take on a bodily existence of their own.

"Many teachers who don't have a deep appreciation of science present it as a set of facts," said David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at Caltech. "What's often missing is the idea of critical thinking, how you assess which ideas are reasonable and which are not."

"When I look back on the science I had in high school, I remember it being taught as a body of facts and laws you had to memorize," said Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago. "The Krebs cycle, Linnaean classifications. Not only does this approach whip the joy of doing science right out of most people, but it gives everyone a distorted view of what science is. Science is not a rigid body of facts. It is a dynamic process of discovery. It is as alive as life itself"

"I couldn't care less whether people memorize the periodic table or not," said David Baltimore, the former president of Caltech. "I understand they're more concerned with problems that are meaningful in their own lives. I just wish they would approach those problems in a more rational way."

When science is offered as a body of facts, science becomes a glassy-eyed glossary. You skim through a textbook or an educational Web site, and words in boldface leap out at you. You're tempted to ignore everything but the highlighted hand wavers. You think, if I learn these terms, maybe I won't flunk chemistry. Yet if you follow such a strategy, chances are excellent that you will flunk chemistry in the ways that matter — not on the report card in your backpack, but on the ratings card in your brain.

The conjuring of science as a smarty-pants set of unerring facts that might be buzzed up on a Jeopardy! afternoon also suits the opponents of science, like the antievolutionists who seize on every disputed fossil to question the entire Darwinian enterprise. "Creationists first try to paint science as a body of facts and certainties, and then they attack this or that 'certainty' for not being so certain after all," said Shubin. "They cry, 'Aha! You can't make up your mind. You can't be trusted. Why should we believe you about anything?' Yet they are the ones who constructed the straw man of scientific infallibility in the first place."

"Science is not a collection of rigid dogmas, and what we call scientific truth is constantly being revised, challenged, and refined," said Michael Duff, a theoretical physicist at the University of Michigan. "It's irritating to hear people who hold fundamentalist views accuse scientists of being the inflexible, rigid ones, when usually it's the other way around. As a scientist, you know that any new discovery you're lucky enough to uncover will raise more questions than you started with, and that you must always question what you thought was correct and remind yourself how little you know. Science is a very humble and humbling activity.

"Which doesn't mean," Duff added hastily, "that there aren't arrogant scientists around."

Back at Yale University, Strobel further explains the message of Mastermind. If science is not a static body of facts, what is it? What does it mean to think scientifically, to take a scientific whack at a problem? The world is big. The world is messy. The world is a teenager's bedroom: Everything's in there. Now how do you get it to the kitchen sink? How can you possibly begin to make sense of it? One furred fork, one accidental petri dish, one peg hole at a time.

"If you're trying to pose a question in a way that gets you data you can interpret, you want to isolate a variable," Strobel says. "In science we take great pains to design experiments that ask only one question at a time. You isolate a single variable, and then you see what happens when you change that variable alone, while doing your best to keep everything else in the experiment unchanged." In Mastermind, you change a single peg and watch the impact of that deviation on your "experiment." In science, if you'd like to know, for example, whether a chemical reaction depends on the presence of oxygen, you would stage the experiment twice, first with oxygen, then without. Everything else you'd keep the same to the closest approximation possible — same heat, same light, same timing, same type of container; and, just to be safe, same white socks and Tevas.

You don't need to work at a laboratory bench to follow a scientific game plan. People behave scientifically all the time, although they may not realize it. "If someone is trying to fix a DVD player, they do experiments, they do controls," said Paul Sternberg, a developmental biologist at Caltech. "Step one is observation: What does the picture look like? What are the possible things that could be wrong here? Is it really the player, or could it be the television set? You come up with a hypothesis, then you start testing it. You borrow your neighbor's DVD player, you hook it up, you see your TV set is fine. So you check your DVD's input, output, a couple of wires. You may be able to track down the problem even without really understanding how a DVD player works.

"Or maybe you're trying to troubleshoot your pet," Sternberg said. "Why does the fish look funny? Why is my dog upset? I'll feed the hamster less or I'll feed it more, or maybe it doesn't like the noise, so I'll move it away from the stereo system. Should I take Job A or Job B? Well, let me see how long the drive would be from the office to my daughter's school during rush hour; that could be the killer factor in making a decision. These are all examples of forming hypotheses, doing experiments, coming up with controls. Some people learn these things at an early age. I had to get a Ph.D. to figure them out."

A number of scientists proposed that people may have been more comfortable with the nuts and bolts of science back when they were comfortable with nuts and bolts. "It was easier to introduce students and the lay public to science when people fixed their own cars or had their hands in machinery of various kinds," said David Botstein of Princeton. "In the immediate period after World War II, everybody who'd been through basic training knew how a differential gear worked because they had taken one apart."

Farmers, too, were natural scientists. They understood the nuances of seasons, climate, plant growth, the do-si-do between parasite and host. The scientific curiosity that entitled our nation's Founding Fathers to membership in Club Renaissance, Anyone? had agrarian roots. Thomas Jefferson experimented with squashes and broccoli imported from Italy, figs from France, peppers from Mexico, beans collected by Lewis and Clark, as he systematically sought to select the "best" species of fruits and vegetables the world had to offer and "to reject all others from the garden." George Washington designed new methods of fertilizing and rotating crops and invented the sixteen-sided treading barn, in which horses would gallop over freshly harvested wheat and efficiently shake the grain from the stalks.

"The average adult American today knows less about biology than the average ten-year-old living in the Amazon, or than the average American of two hundred years ago," said Andrew Knoll, a professor of natural history at Harvard's Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. "Through the fruits of science, ironically enough, we've managed to insulate people from the need to know about science and nature." Yet still, people troubleshoot their pets, their kids, and, in moments of utter recklessness, their computers, and they apply scientific reasoning in many settings without realizing it, for the simple reason that the method works so well.

Much of the reason for its success is founded on another fundamental of the scientific bent. Scientists accept, quite staunchly, that there is a reality capable of being understood, and understood in ways that can be shared with and agreed upon by others. We can call this "objective" reality if we like, as opposed to subjective reality, or opinion, or "whimsical set of predilections." The contrast is deceptive, however, for it implies that the two are discrete entities with remarkably little in common. Objective reality is out there, other, impersonal, and "not me," while subjective reality is private, intimate, inimitable, and life as it is truly lived. Objective reality is cold and abstract; subjective reality is warm and Rockwell. Science is effective because it bypasses such binaries in favor of what might be called empirical universalism, the rigorously outfitted and enormously fruitful premise that the objective reality of the universe comprises the subjective reality of every one of us. We are of the universe, and by studying the universe we ultimately turn the mirror on ourselves. "Science is not describing a universe out there, and we're separate entities," said Brian Greene. "We're part of that universe, we're made of the same stuff as that universe, of ingredients that behave according to the same laws as they do elsewhere in the universe."

A molecule of water beaded on a forehead at Yale University would be indistinguishable from a molecule of water skating through space aboard Comet Kohoutek. Ashes to ashes, stardust to our dust. As I'll describe later in detail, the elements of our bodies, and of the earth, and of a painted Grandma's holiday apron, were all forged in the bellies of long-dead suns.

To say that there is an objective reality, and that it exists and can be understood, is one of those plain-truth poems of science that is nearly bottomless in its beauty. It is easy to forget that there is an objective, concrete universe, an outerverse measured in light years, a microverse trading in angstroms, the currency of atoms; we've succeeded so well in shaping daily reality to reflect the very narrow parameters and needs of Homo sapiens. We the subjects become we the objects, and we forget that the moon shows up each night for the graveyard shift, and we often haven't a clue as to where we might find it in the sky. We are made of stardust; why not take a few moments to look up at the family album? "Most of the time, when people walk outside at night and see the stars, it's a big, pretty background, and it's not quite real," said the Caltech planetary scientist Michael Brown. "It doesn't occur to them that the pattern they see in the sky repeats itself once a year, or to appreciate why that's true."

Star light, star bright, Brown wishes you'd try this trick at night: Pay attention to the moon. Go outside a few evenings in any given month, and see what time the moon rises, and what phase it's in, and when it sets, and then see if you can explain why. "Just doing this makes you realize that the sun and moon are both out there," he said, "and that the sun is actually shining on the moon, and the moon is going around the Earth, and that it's not all a Hollywood special effect." Brown knows first-eye how powerful such simple observations can be. It was the summer after he'd graduated from college, and he was biking across Europe and sleeping outside each night. In accordance with his status as young, footloose, and overseas, he wore no wristwatch, so he sought to keep time by the phases of the moon. "I realized that I had never noticed before that the full moon rises when the sun sets," he said. "I thought, Hey, you know, this makes sense. I suppose I should have been embarrassed not to have noticed it before, but I wasn't. Instead, it was just an amazing feeling. The whole physical world is really out there, and things are really happening. It's so easy to isolate yourself from most of the world, to say nothing of the rest of the universe."

The last spring of my father's life, before he died unexpectedly of a fast-growing tumor, he told me that it was the first time he had stopped, during his walks through Central Park in New York, and paid attention to the details of the plants in bloom: the bulging out of a bud from a Lenten rose, the uncurling of a buttery magnolia blossom, the sprays of narcissus, Siberian bugloss, and bleeding heart. I was so impressed by this that, ever since, I have tried to do likewise, attending anew to the world in rebirth. Each spring I ask a specific question about what I'm seeing and so feel as though I am lighting a candle in his memory, a small focused flame against the void of self-absorption, the blindness of I.

Another fail-safe way to change the way you see the world is to invest in a microscope. Not one of those toy microscopes sold in most Science 'n' Discovery chain stores, which, as Tom Eisner, a professor of chemical ecology at Cornell, has observed, are unwrapped on Christmas morning and in the closet before Boxing Day. Not the microscopes that magnify specimens up to hundreds of times and make everything look like a satellite image of an Iowa cornfield. Rather, you should buy a dissecting microscope, also known as a stereo microscope. Admittedly, such microscopes are not cheap, running a couple of hundred dollars or so. Yet this is a modest price to pay for revelation, revolution, and — let's push this envelope out of the box while we're at it — personal salvation. Like Professor Brown, I speak from experience. I was accustomed to looking through high-powered microscopes in laboratories and seeing immune cells and cancer cells and frogs' eggs and kidney tissue from fetal mice. But it wasn't until my daughter received a dissecting microscope as a gift, and we began using it to examine the decidua of everyday life, that I began yodeling my hallelujahs. A feather from a blue jay, a fiddlehead fern, a scraping from a branch that turned out to be the tightly honeycombed housing for a stinkbug's eggs. How much heft and depth, shadow and thistle, leap out at you when the small is given scope to strut. At a mere 40 × magnification, salt grains look like scattered glass pillows, a baby beetle becomes a Fabergé egg, and, as much as I hate mosquitoes, a mosquito under the microscope is pure Giacometti: Thin Man Takes Wing, with Violin.


Excerpted from "The Canon"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Natalie Angier.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Sisyphus Sings with a Ying 1

1. Thinking Scientifically: An Out-of-Body Experience 18 2. Probabilities: For Whom the Bell Curves 47 3. Calibration: Playing with Scales 71 4. Physics: And Nothing’s Plenty for Me 87 5. Chemistry: Fire, Ice, Spies, and Life 121 6. Evolutionary Biology: The Theory of Every Body 147 7. Molecular Biology: Cells and Whistles 183 8. Geology: Imagining World Pieces 212 9. Astronomy: Heavenly Creatures 235

References 267 Acknowledgments 280 Index 282

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Every sentence sparkles with wit and charm. . . it all adds up to an intoxicating cocktail of fine science writing."—Richard Dawkins

"Natalie Angier provides a masterful, authoritative synthesis of the state of knowledge across the entire scientific landscape."—Howard Gardner, Harvard University, author of Five Minds for the Future and Frames of Mind

"An essential experience . . . How dare she write so artfully, explain so brilliantly, rendering us scientists simultaneously proud and inarticulate!"—Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate

"Every single sentence . . . sparkles with enough intelligence and wit to delight science-phobes and science-philes alike. I loved it!"—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bait and Switch and Nickel and Dimed

"Natalie Angier makes planets and particles sexy. . .She turns guys with lab coats and pocket protectors into Daniel Craig."—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

"Exuberant . . . She writes with such verve, humor, and warmth." Library Journal Starred

"This bestselling author's love of words is writ large here . . . the excitement and challenge of science [is] masterfully conveyed." Kirkus Reviews, Starred

"Angier is a nimble stylist with a playful sense of alliteration and consonance."—Ben Dickinson Elle

"An excellent introduction (or refresher) to the beautiful basics of science, and I hope it is widely read."—Steven Pinker The New York Times Book Review

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