It’s good to be home, especially when welcomed by Natalie Angier

I’m home from our vacation, and our painfully tiring redeye flight from Seattle, and I get a treat right as I step through the door: a copy of Natalie Angier’s The Canon(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) arrived in the mail while I was away. What did I do? Right after we got all the luggage into the house, I flopped down on the bed with it and read it until the lack of sleep caught up with me — and it’s good enough that I actually made it through the first two chapters before passing out. It’s a passionate and enthusiastic survey of basic principles in science, and it’s fun to read.

Then I discovered that onegoodmove had a video interview of Angier talking about her book. She’s very good; check it out. She’s the kind of science journalist I want to see more of, and everyone should go out and buy her book to encourage her to do more.

One annoyance: several of the commenters at onegoodmove seem to be of the concern troll variety. Here’s this smart, fluent, talented writer who is also a world-class science geek and atheist, and they start picking over her appearance and body language — it’s rather dismaying, in particular since her gestures are no more flamboyant than those of her (male) interviewer. I’ve long thought that Natalie Angier would make an excellent spokesperson for godless science, and wondered why we don’t see more of her … and I wonder if part of the reason is that the same troglodytes who grunt in disgust at the sight of someone who doesn’t respect their sky-god are also appalled at the sight of a woman speaking confidently about high geek factor subjects and also dismissing their primitive superstitions.


  1. CalGeorge, radical diehard atheist says

    I failed miserably to educate nyself about science in school. After school I spent years living inside my head.

    Huge waste of time!

    I regret it terribly.

    Natalie’s message is exactly what the self-absorbed, god-intoxicated crowd needs to hear.

  2. chris says

    When she gets over her stagefright, she’s going to be a wonderful speaker.
    I’m looking forward to the book.

  3. Christian Burnham says

    PZ slightly ruined it for me. I spent the whole video looking at her body language.

    Her gestures are completely within normal range for a scientist, though might be considered eccentric by non-scientists. Maybe a little towards the autistic side of the spectrum, with poor eye contact.

    I thought she was particularly beautiful and I was enchanted by her facial expressions and hand movements. I could see that there was a burning intelligence trying to express herself.

    A bit Jodie Fosterish, but that’s A1 in my book.

  4. monkeymind says

    I think the really important question here is whether she can accessorize properly. And it’s hard to tell from the video, but I think she might have thick ankles.

  5. says

    Now that Christian has viewed the video to appreciate the body language, now he can go back to view it again for the spoken language.

    Ye gods, I hope none of my students are attending my lectures just to be amused by my body language and gestures.

  6. just me says

    “Maybe a little towards the autistic side of the spectrum, with poor eye contact.”

    If you think about the interview in terms of what she is experiencing on her end, you’ll notice that it is not eye contact that she is avoiding. She makes plenty of eye contact with the host. She is just uncomfortable looking into the camera, which is a hard thing to adjust to at first if you have a lack of experience with it since it feels very contrived to look straight into it.

    I thought she was fantastic. I’d love to see her lecture!

  7. Christian Burnham says

    Zeno: It was PZ who brought it up!

    And- of course your students study your body language and ridicule it behind your back. Making fun of professors is a tradition that’s as old as the hills.

  8. says

    I just came back from viewing the Angier interview and laughed out loud in delight when she talked about the need for people to enter into the spirit of science, to do experiments on their own. Her example? Watching the moon. Tracking its path across the sky. Yes! I remember my own awestruck feeling of being amidst the gears of a clockwork universe when I first started paying attention to the moon. I no longer track it quite as diligently as I used to, but every so often I still catch myself staring at it in rapt attention. [Link]

    P.S. to Christian: I fear you’re right. And these days you can always count on some of them to rush over to to post catty remarks about your wardrobe, hair, and speaking voice.

  9. Ian Menzies says

    “Making fun of professors is a tradition that’s as old as the hills.”
    Heck, it’s a tradition that’s almost as old as many professors!

  10. Christian Burnham says

    Zeno: You’re just sore because you didn’t get enough ‘this professor is hot’ ratings on

  11. llewelly says

    Good interview. However, I feel she missed a chance to point out some specific examples of scientists with high moral values, like Rachel Carson.

  12. says

    Actually, Christian, I do have a “hot” rating from several students. Frankly, it’s worrisome.

    Llewelly, there’s been a concerted attack on Rachel Carson in recent months, most of them based on the DDT myth. If Angier had cited her, I can just imagine some of the nasty comments that would arise. It’s not as though they’re difficult to bat down, but there’s a lot of it and it’s quite vitriolic. Tim Lambert’s Deltoid is a particularly good source of details. [Link]

  13. Christian Burnham says

    Zeno: I stand corrected. Most of us had to make a choice between pursuing a career in academia or in modeling and becoming a fashion star. It seems you managed to become both.

  14. Becca says

    I’m so pleased you brought her up- she is truly a fantastic writer.
    “Women: An Intimate Geography” jumped out at me in one of those magic-used-book-selection-moments (just what I needed without me knowing it was what I needed!)… I think Angier is just exactly the sort of person that might *terrify* the “self-absorbed, god-intoxicated crowd”.
    I think she’s my hero.

    Anyway, I also went back and found “Natural Obsessions” and loved that. I haven’t gotten the latest one yet, but I am looking forward to it!

  15. phat says

    I’m going to have to get this book.

    You were right, there certainly is a lot of concern trolling going on at onegoodmove. It’s too bad.

    I was actually a bit surprised at how interested that interviewer actually seemed. His questions were pretty good.


  16. marcia says

    Also two chapters in. And very much liking it. I rarely buy books. Always get from library as I did Angier’s.

    I think I will buy this one.

  17. Christian Burnham says

    Duh… I forgot the obvious.

    What Angier needs is to ‘frame’ herself better.

    Firstly- Drop the science. No-one like a know-it-all. Especially not in a girl.

    Secondly- Enough already with this radical atheism. Remember- if you criticize religion, then that makes you an extremist, like the Taleban.

    Thirdly- Girls, it never harms to show a bit of leg. We look to the men for heady intellectual debate, the least you can do is to make yourselves a little easier on the eye.

  18. Ryan DeChant says

    New here at pharyngula, and I wanted to let others know that there is also a podcast of Natalie Angier discussing her new book with DJ Grothe on Point of Inquiry on the show’s website:

  19. says

    OK, I ordered it AND “Women: an Intimate Geography” AND “God is Not Great,” through your link instead of via, so I hope you get a commission. YThere went my book-buying budget for the month.

  20. folderol says

    I’m listening to “The Canon” as an audiobook (almost called it a book on tape, which dates me, I fear). I can highly, strongly, enthusiastically recommend it as an audiobook. The writing is, of course, wonderful, but the narration is also delightful.

  21. Timcol says

    I am almost all of the way through The Canon and I am extremely impressed. I’m one of those people who just about flunked science in school (and ended up working in IT)…but nowadays as a skeptic and atheist I have come to realize how extremely important it is to have a solid grasp of science. Natalie’s book perfectly fits this role. But more than that, she is just one heck of a fine writer!

    In reading her book, I’m amazed at the number of new insights I’ve had over subjects that I never had really properly grasped. Her explanation of the atom was masterly and provided all sorts of insights I’d never known before. Similarly for her explanations on DNA and electricity. And she does all of this adeptly without any diagrams or figures – all through prose. I’ve read science books before mainly on the premise that “it’s good for me”, but Natalie’s writing is so compelling I have never enjoyed science writing quite this much. Can’t wait for what she does next!

  22. Will E. says

    I sat in Borders a few weeks ago and read a bit of “The Canon,” and really enjoyed it. And linking Shakespeare and the Clash? Woah. Love it.

  23. says

    Thought I’d stop by the pond and see what the world’s most angst-ridden cephalapod was up to..

    PZ, don’t you’d think you’d make more progress in life if you spent more time promoting Evolution and less time hating Christianity? Just a thought.

    But if you’re happy as a half-baked Dawkins on an overdose of stupid pills (sorry, couldn’t resist); well then, by all means. Hate is such a destructive force – to the one who hates. My prediction – heart attack in 10 years or less. I sincerely hope I’m wrong though. You should talk to someone who knows about such things – I’m sure you’ve a psychologist/physiologist at the University who could educate you.

    Take care, PZ.

  24. Christian Burnham says

    My prediction – heart attack in 10 years or less. I sincerely hope I’m wrong though.

    Now, that’s concern trolling!

  25. Alan says

    After reading the Amazon reviews, I’m quite concerned about the book. (Although it’s still in my cart). Most like the content, but hate the flowery language. The examples cited make me not want to read the book: I can’t read John Le Carre, or Larry McMurtry for their over written prose. I prefer St. Exupery: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove.”
    Is anyone else haveing trouble with the prose?

  26. says

    It’s not spare, but I wouldn’t call it flowery, either — more like exuberant and enthusiastic. She is not writing a bare-bones introduction to the concepts of science, but instead a book that tries to convince the reader that science is fun and exciting.

  27. nicole says

    Most like the content, but hate the flowery language.

    I was concerned about this as well. I had been eagerly awaiting this book’s release, but I read a review of it in the NYT by Steven Pinker that gave me pause (only because of the specific gripe). For example:

    Angier’s language is always clever, and sometimes witty, but “The Canon” would have been better served if her Inner Editor had cut the verbal gimmickry by a factor of three. It’s not just the groaners, like “Einstein made the pi wider,” or the clutter, like “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?” The deeper problem is a misapplication of the power of the verbal analogy in scientific exposition.

    But all too often in Angier’s writing, the similarity is sound-deep: the more you ponder the allusion, the worse you understand the phenomenon. For example, in explaining the atomic nucleus, she writes, “Many of the more familiar elements have pretty much the same number of protons and neutrons in their hub: carbon the egg carton, with six of one, half dozen of the other; nitrogen like a 1960s cocktail, Seven and Seven; oxygen an aria of paired octaves of protons and neutrons.” This is showing off at the expense of communication. Spatial arrangements (like eggs in a carton), mixed ingredients (like those of a cocktail) and harmonically related frequencies (like those of an octave) are all potentially relevant to the structure of matter (and indeed are relevant to closely related topics in physics and chemistry), so Angier forces readers to pause and determine that these images should be ignored here. Not only do readers have to work to clear away the verbal overgrowth, but a substantial proportion of them will be misled and will take the flourishes literally. (Trust me: I’ve graded exams.)

    This seems problematic to me, and I’m very curious to see whether you disagree.

  28. Christian Burnham says

    “Many of the more familiar elements have pretty much the same number of protons and neutrons in their hub: carbon the egg carton, with six of one, half dozen of the other; nitrogen like a 1960s cocktail, Seven and Seven; oxygen an aria of paired octaves of protons and neutrons.”

    That’s among the worst scientific prose I have laid eyes on.

  29. frodo says

    Pinker’s review was the reason I didn’t buy the book. (Sure, he has a lot of good things to say about it, but the language thing was enough to turn me off.)

  30. llewelly says


    Llewelly, there’s been a concerted attack on Rachel Carson in recent months, …

    Precisely why it is especially important that Rachel Carson be mentioned positively. For some months I have been watching (mostly via Tim Lambert and Eli Rabett))the recent resurgence of attacks on Carson’s reputation, and I mentioned her specifically because it is when a person’s reputation is attacked that it is most important to make regular positive mentions of that person’s good character. It’s an important part of showing how heinous the anti-Carson lies are. It tells people why Carson’s reputation should be defended.

  31. hoary puccoon says

    Oops. I’m a sucker for popularizations of science, but I don’t think Angier will make my birthday list. Let’s not forget how astonishing the discovery of the periodic table really was. The whole thing had such a smack of numerology that a lot of scientists flat out refused to believe it. If Angier thinks she has to trick out a story like that with cutesy writing it doesn’t say much for her grasp of the material– or her opinion of her readers’ intelligence.

  32. bernarda says

    The Secular Outpost has a link to a story of British ex-born-again athlete John Edwards.

    “Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief,” Edwards says. “During my documentary on St Paul, some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit. It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.”

    The upheaval of recent months has not left Edwards emotionally scarred, at least not visibly. “I am not unhappy about the fact that there might not be a God,” he says. “I don’t feel that my life has a big, gaping hole in it. In some ways I feel more human than I ever have. There is more reality in my existence than when I was full-on as a believer. It is a completely different world to the one I inhabited for 37 years, so there are feelings of unfamiliarity.

    “There have also been issues to address in terms of my relationships with family and friends, many of whom are Christians. But I feel internally happier than at any time of my life, more content within my own skin. Maybe it is because I am not viewing the world through a specific set of spectacles.”

    “The only inner problem that I face now is a philosophical one,” Edwards says. “If there is no God, does that mean that life has no purpose? Does it mean that personal existence ends at death? They are thoughts that do my head in. One thing that I can say, however, is that even if I am unable to discover some fundamental purpose to life, this will not give me a reason to return to Christianity. Just because something is unpalatable does not mean that it is not true.”

  33. says

    Now that was rather surprising. I remember Edwards from when he scored that insane world record (on Swedish ground, btw) back in -95… he was without a doubt the most outspoken, zealous and wholesome Christian in all of athletics. Think a triple-jumping, British Ned Flanders.

  34. nicole says

    That’s among the worst scientific prose I have laid eyes on.

    Agreed, unfortunately. I wasn’t sure I could handle an entire volume of that. I was disappointed too because I had been hearing very positive things about Angier.

  35. says

    Because of all the comments, I separately listened to and then watched the interview. Sure, Angier used hand gestures, but so did Stroumboulopoulos, and he’s a professional! I much prefer to see someone enthusiastic but unpolished as opposed to slick and smarmy (politicians, televangelists and professional creationists come to mind).

    As for the book, though it may be an excellent work of science popularization, the excerpt from Steven Pinker’s review has convinced me that I do not want or need to read it. I consider that to be a good thing, as I have a huge stack of books waiting in the queue as soon as I finish Pinker’s The Blank Slate, so it’s a relief not to add yet another must-read to the pile.

  36. Ken Mareld says

    Thank you PZ. I’m going to have to check this book out to see what all the dispute over her writing style is all about. Is it all an argument over framing? I am currently reading: The Third Chimpanzee, Microbe Hunters, God is Not Great, and Armed Madhouse (that one sits on my toilet tank). What good is life if you can’t read several books at the same time?
    As to her gesticulating during the interview, so what! I had never realized how much I talk with my hands until I was filmed in a management discussion when I was working for Goodyear. It was awesome. If someone had grabbed my hands I would probably respond with shock in my voice saying “I can’t talk! I can’t talk!”. Voice and words are only a small part of how we communicate. If you’ve ever seen yourself talk, you would find it amazing how small the words are relative to the ideas espoused.


  37. says

    Ken Mareld:

    I can sympathize quite intensely! Everybody tells me I take after my grandmother in this respect; after she had heart trouble, she was given explicit instructions to “talk with her hands” less, and she found it pretty difficult.

    I’d like to get Angier’s book so I can judge the writing for myself. However, my free reading time is pretty heavily dominated by Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. I did take a break to refresh my command of The Sandman (as you might guess). In addition, I set aside time today to read Hector Avalos’s The End of Biblical Studies (2007), which just arrived in the mailroom this morning. (Well, I didn’t really “set aside time” so much as tacitly acknowledge that I had started reading and wasn’t likely to stop.) On a first brush, it’s quite good, and it appears to have been copy-edited more closely than Fighting Words (2005). So, the Discovery Institute’s smear campaign against Avalos — their malodorous response to the Gonzalez incident — has resulted in his selling at least two books.

  38. Larry Ausley says

    Her gestures and mannerisms brought to my mind another well-known scientist:Carl Sagan. That type of physical emotion only says to me that these folks are passionate about what what they are saying and need a physical expression of their emotions beyond voice. Thanks for this post. I’ll have to get her book.

  39. Warren Terra says

    The only Angier book I’ve read is her egregious book ‘Natural Obsessions’, which gives a rather blindered and distinctly odd view of the early search for oncogenes, mostly from Angier’s extended tour observing the Weinberg lab. Angier got rather too close to some of her subjects in that book, and didn’t really get far enough into the science.

    It’s good to hear her more recent work is better; I mostly loan my copy of ‘Natural Obsessions’ for giggles.

  40. says

    Well, naturally I’ll read it pen in hand as usual. If it’s TOO flowery, send her to me. I can edit to take away the smoke while letting the fire shine through.

  41. Ann says

    I learned so much from Angier’s book on female biology and didn’t find her prose overbearing, but I’m a few chapters into “Canon” and it is a bit overblown. She’s having fun with language, but if it’s obvious, it’s usually too much.

    Still, the popularization of science is no small thing. More power to her!