The Canon

As a major fan of Natalie Angier, I was well-disposed to favor The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) — and overall, my opinion of the book is favorable. I’m afraid, though, that it’s filling a very narrow niche and most of my readers here won’t be interested in it…but some of you may find it just right.

As you might guess from the title, the premise of the book is a reaction to a peculiar snobbery of many of the educated elite. Science is mechanics; it’s engineering; it’s greasy hands and strange smells; it’s a place of childish enthusiasms. It is not the place for the rarefied appreciation of true beauty, which belongs to the arts and literature, and sophisticated children will be yanked out of the model rocketry club and told to take ballet lessons. You can look through a list of books belonging to the traditional Western Canon, for instance, and find Shakespeare and Camus, but you won’t find a single work of science, no Galileo, no Newton (I was especially amused at Bloom’s list that includes Aristotle’s Poetics and Ethics, but bugger all on History of Animals, Parts of Animals, or Physics). The asymmetry of our educations is clear even at my own university: as a liberal arts college, we emphasize that all students should get a basic introduction to literature, art, history, and all those crucial elements of culture … except that a humanities major can still get a degree with negligible exposure to math and science. Angier has set out to correct a massive gap in the education of the literati with a kind of canon of science, a summary of the major concepts of a series of scientific disciplines.

It’s an admirable goal, but it’s also the source of a flaw. The book has to be written for those products of an educational system that regards science as a lesser vocation, so the content can only ascend as high as a superficial primer. We science nerds have our own kind of snobbery, and I’m afraid we aren’t going to be appreciative of the thin gruel served up here. She’s in Bill Bryson territory here, and I’d recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) over The Canon as the primer lay people ought to read.

Another weakness is that her audience is narrower still: this is the science book for the tweed-and-elbow-patches set, garden club attendees and fans of Merchant-Ivory films. Those movies, for instance, linger long over the elegant appointments of the drawing room, the fine, formal fashions, and the studied language of the actors, but from my point of view, nothing much happens. There are lovely static tableaux, but, well, Bruce Willis isn’t likely to roar up in a muscle car and smash the bric-a-brac shelf. Angier also gives us relatively passive summaries of the sciences which are rich with description, but don’t tell us much about how we know these things, or where the controversies are, or even who produced these marvelous ideas. We get the mise en scène but not the plot or the dramatis personæ. It’s a bit like reading a textbook in that sense.

Where there is a deficiency of dynamism in the subject, though, Angier makes up for it in the energy of the prose. Some reviewers have criticized it for her exuberant language, but I actually enjoyed it — this is the kind of book where, if you can’t just sit back and enjoy the work for the shape of the words on the page, where you can’t just relax and enjoy the journey without worrying about the destination, you are going to be constantly irritated. You have to be the kind of spectator who is enchanted to see someone in love with science, where the passion bubbles off of every page, to really find satisfaction here. Then it works, and it works very well.

Ultimately, it felt like a book where most of the pieces were there for the kind of book I’d want to hand to incoming college freshman English majors and say, “here, this will explain those parts of the Western Canon that aren’t actually included in the Western Canon” … except that in the need to cover so much, she had to make room by jettisoning the plot that would make it a story they’d want to read. Maybe the major error was trying to reduce a scientific canon to a single book.


  1. Christian Burnham says

    Hmmm… I thought she was great in the video interview you posted a few days back.

    What little I’ve seen of the prose though is terrible. There was a page on the Dawkins site where she talks about water molecules, which happens to be my field. Horrible horrible!

    I can’t believe you could defend her writing style. (I’m sorry- I too really wanted to like this.)

  2. Dale Athman says

    I agree with your review. I did feel a little guilty when I checked this book out of the library but returned it before getting halfway through the book (not that it’s a bad book, just not anything new to me in it). I appreciate your validation of my actions. Thanks PZ.

  3. says

    Well, Bloom did make room for Lucretius and Giordano Bruno, but The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast is hardly a science book. He includes history (Herodotus, Gibbon) and science fiction (Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Čapek, Lem, even Vonnegut) but not science; the best medical education one could get out of the Western Canon seems to be Molière’s Le Malade Imaginaire and De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

  4. says

    Maybe it’s because I’m in the Bay Area, but our universities here, and in particular the one I teach for, does not have the problem Angiers purports to be addressing. At my university, the funding of the colleges is such that social sciences and humanities and fine arts combined receiving a tiny proportion of the operating budget, and engineering alone receiving 1/4 (business also gets a bunch). The traditional sciences, to be fair, are likewise being strangled, whereas the “applied sciences” are receiving massive amounts of money.

    Getting students to take any kind of humanities, social science, or even biology class is a miracle, and the only way those departments survive is by creating “sexy” general ed courses with minimal requirements so that engineers or business majors will take them.

    I’m not sure what world Angiers is living in, but in my corner of academia, we’re lucky to get students to care about anything besides their degree, which they see as a means-to-an-end, the end of getting a job.

    That said, I read the introduction in the bookstore and put it back on the shelf. I’m a social scientist and most of what I could see in the book was review to me, and I have to agree that the prose just didn’t work. Some journalists don’t seem to be able to make the leap to book format as easily as others (e.g., Matt Ridley).

  5. says

    Going farther off topic, I have to look at Bloom’s list again and ask, “Where the fuck is Euclid, who alone has looked on Beauty bare?”

    I’m always looking for books to recommend to friends, and since some of my friends are of the (ahem) literary persuasion, I might direct them in The Canon‘s direction.

  6. says

    Speaking of canons, wasn’t there also a list somewhere on Pharyngula… recommended reading for essential scientific literacy and critical thinking skills? Something like this list, but with Demon Haunted World also making the cut?

  7. Opisthokont says

    I have not seen Angier’s book yet, but I must express my discontent with Bryson’s. I agree that he covered a lot of material well, and overall I have little to complain about. His tone is occasionally objectionable, though. Frequently he dismisses details of the science that he covers, and justifiably so: such are beyond the scope of his work, or the interest of his readers, and such omissions are inevitable in this type of work. However, he does so in a manner that gave me the impression that he regards (and by extension, that the readers should regard) the people who genuinely care about the details (in other words, the scientists themselves) as subjects of pity, who ought to be humoured for obsessions over meaningless trivia. He has a tendency to mock his subjects that I thought genuinely counterproductive. He does mention that he intentionally glosses over a lot of the details and of the controversies, that he is more concerned with what science has told us than with how we listen to it, but this gives a false impression, one that is enforced from early childhood: that science is in the business of supplying answers. It is not. Science is in the business of asking questions; answers are a by-product — an immensely useful by-product, but nevertheless not its primary purpose. To denigrate the process by which those answers come into our collective consciousness is to denigrate science itself, and to deny respect to those who genuinely care about the questions, odd or indirect or trivial though they may seem to the nonspecialist, is to deny respect to science itself. Mockery, no matter how gentle or well-intentioned or even self-deprecating, has no place in science.

  8. Greg Peterson says

    Too clever by half. She couldn’t get through a paragraph without at least one witty turn of phrase, one droll pun, one sequence of alliteration. The damn thing just needed some air. I was choking on all those literary devices, which is a shame, because she handled several topics adroitly.

  9. says

    I’m not sure what world Angiers is living in, but in my corner of academia, we’re lucky to get students to care about anything besides their degree, which they see as a means-to-an-end, the end of getting a job.

    Have people noticed an increase in the attitude among students as described above?

    I may be romanticising the past, but I recall from my undergraduate years a fair number of other students for whom university was a place to passionately discuss ideas, whether related to their fields of study or not. This was in the mid-90s. Later, when I went back for an after-degree in the early 00s, the proportion of those types of students seemed to decline in favour of the ‘I paid my money; now gimme my degree and let me out of here’ types.

    Are my perceptions accurate, or am I just a whiny crank?

  10. says

    He includes history (Herodotus, Gibbon) and science fiction (Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Čapek, Lem, even Vonnegut) but not science; …

    He also has LeGuin (Left Hand of Darkness won both a Hugo and a Nebula, so it has to be SF!). But curiously Tolkien isn’t part of the canon.

    I was wondering what science would be worth putting in the Western canon. I think one problem is that much of it is obscure to the non-specialist, or is nowadays viewed as wrong. The two books that spring to mind as exceptions are Origin of Species and Selfish Gene. I’m not sure the Principia would be accessible enough (well, either of them – Newton’s or Whitehead Russell’s). And something like Einstein’s stuff, or Fisher’s Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is totally out!

    Hmmm, looks like a challenge.


  11. says


    I don’t see why mockery and self-depreciation should not have a place in science. Scientists take themselves far too seriously. More mockery and a lot more self-depreciation would help science.

    Bryson’s style is mockery and self-depreciation. That is probably why he prefers living in England, where it is part of the culture.

  12. says

    I’m with Lab Cat. Bryson’s writing style in A Short History of Nearly Everything is fairly consistent with his other books. His perspective is personal: he prefers to write about people and their idiosyncracies than dry history.

  13. FlyLeft says

    PZM notes that some reviewers have been critical of Angier’s florid prose. Steven Pinker in the NYT is one. Overall he’s positive, but if the examples he cites below are typical, I say no thanks. These kind of writing tics drive me nuts.

    excerpt from Pinker’s review:

    “The Canon” would have been better served if [Angier’s] 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. […] …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.

  14. says

    Bob O’H:

    Is Aristotle’s Poetics “easy”, clear to the non-specialist and viewed as completely correct today? What about Leviathan?

    Given the amount of material per author Bloom is willing to include, my first nomination for the “scientific canon” — remember, I’m a physics person — would be The Feynman Lectures on Physics (four volumes in the newest edition) and The Character of Physical Law. That’s about the best mix of fact and “scientific spirit” I could put together.

  15. Jen Phillips says

    @ Brownian re: “Are my perceptions accurate, or am I just a whiny crank?”

    Well, I can’t speak to the latter from personal experience, but I too have perceived the phenomenon you describe in the current (i.e. coming through in the past 5 years or so) crop of undergrads. It seems to correlate closely with the generation of enabled, pampered, nclb’d students who never heard the word ‘failure’ or had to endure anything like real-world competition during their primary/secondary education. This group of young people (and yes, I am totally generalizing here, I know there are abundant exceptions, please don’t crucify me on those grounds alone :) has been getting a bit of bad press lately because they’ve now tranferred their appalingly overinflated sense of entitlement to the work force. Employers are finding that they need to give more verbal ‘attaboys’, written rewards and suchlike. In the classroom, I have found it nearly impossible to engage such students with any concepts like “knowledge for its own sake” or appreciation for new ideas, alternative world views, etc. They want to know the answers to the test questions, period. It’s quite disheartening, really. I’m hoping that this experiment in self esteem building will be recognized for the failure that it has been, and that we’ll see positive change in the near future.
    In solidarity,

  16. says

    The soulless, ‘gimme my degree’ type you fellows in academia are seeing in increasing droves is what the public schools are producing these days.

    (sigh) I’m a high school science teacher, by way of confession.

    Why is this the current product? Because the majority of students are now learning the lesson that the federal government wants them to learn, that it’s all about the test scores, stupid. I invite everyone who cares about public school education to check out this organization.

  17. Kseniya says

    On a slightly more mundane note – but not unrelated to Scott’s comment – check out this editorial from today’s NYT, in which Elizabeth A. Harris waxes nostalgic about the Liberty Science Center, and gives us a look into the newly-refurbished Center that reopens this week.

    America is falling behind in the global competition to produce and educate scientists. The Liberty Science Center hopes that the chance to interact with real scientists and their work might awaken new enthusiasm in children who might otherwise be napping in the back of their chemistry classrooms.

  18. says

    I have mixed feelings about “canons” in any field, scientific or literary (some standards are necessary, yet the concept smacks of elite snobbery, and overlooks many worthwhle works). But books like Bryson’s and Angier’s are, I think, badly needed, since a lot of the popular science books out thre are mostly preaching to the converted. Bryson, in particular, has that populist knack of reaching people who might never otherwise be exposed to scientific ideas, and he does so in such an entertaining fashion, it never feels didactic.

  19. Greg Peterson says

    If Jennifer says something is needed for a populist touch, I’m willing to go along with that because her “Physics of the Buffyverse” book is a model of using something “pop” to enliven scientific information (as are the “Physics of Star Trek” and related books–but she didn’t write those). But Jennifer also ably shows that lively science writing can be produced effectively without exhausting one’s readers. There was something just too-too about “Cannon.” Pinker was right about that.

  20. clamboy says

    O Beloved Leader Myers (how d’ya *them* apples, Doc Knop?), you put Bryson’s book ahead of Angier’s? Well, you must know best. Me, I could barely get through “A Short History…” due to Bryson’s obsession with gossip over science. Names and settings are great, but I want to learn *what* was discovered, and not so much about the geek who did it! Maybe Angier is my cuppa, after all, and thus I will have to break with the true teachings of our Fatherly Leader. I shall report to the “Sycophant Reeducation Center” in the morning.

    Honestly, though, when I, a lay person, read a popular book meant to educate me in science, I expect *science,* first and foremost. If Galileo was doing his neighbor’s cat, so what?

  21. mothra says

    A few comments- ‘time clock’ students are commonplace at my institution as well. They walk in, do the bare minimum and expect to pass written/oral exams as if they were procedures rather than tests of proficiency and competence.

    Expanding on Bob’s crucial point- to embrace a western canon of literature requires only reading. A western canon of science will not be as immediately accessible. One can start reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Hamlet, or As You Like It. Ones’ appreciation of the bard will grow with more reading but understanding of work #2 does not depend on comprehension of work #1. Newton’s Principia or the writings of R.A. Fisher or Bill Hamilton are not accessible without grounding in mere high school fundamentals.

  22. Brook says

    We read and reread sections of Bryson’s book. His analogies are great and his style is his style (just try Walk In the Woods). He’s been a springboard to lots of more specific works.

    As for Angier’s book I’m glad I was able to borrow a copy because, as a science loving family, The Canon wasn’t written for us. I’ll read sections of it to my 6yo because he loves purple prose but that’s about it.

    I think I’d give an science-phobe Bryson because he admits that he’s uncomfortable with science, but, being more uncomfortable with ignorance, set out to try to learn the basics. I could see a science-phobe reacting to Angier’s enthusiams with “Yeah, that’s alright for you, you were born loving science. Me? I just don’t like it and that’s that.”

  23. says

    Just a few points:

    First as someone who came up through a graduate humanities program, the leather-elbow-patch crowd is largely a myth at this point. You can still find a specimen or two without too much effort, but people who look down on science are far from the majority even in English departments.

    Rather science is looked upon as incomprehensible or the sort of stuff some other sort of people do. Science actually has quite a bit of mojo in humanities departments, as the Sokal incident made clear.

    (A lot of people thought the point of that incident was that humanities folk despise science, but the reason the piece got published–I know some of the people who worked on the issue–was because the folks at Social Text were so desperate for the validation of a scientist who agreed with some of their epistemological beliefs.)

    One thing humanities folk DO despise however is naive realism, which sometimes seems to be a bit too popular in scientific circles.

    Also, how many physicists have read Newton entire? Why bother when you can read someone who writes rather more clearly explaining the same point. Does anyone think Principia is a work of literary art that must be enjoyed in itself?

  24. says

    Oh, and I like Bryson’s book. I think the faults of tone the other commenter pointed out are due to his strong desire to domesticate and demystify science. Scientists are to be heroized to an extent for their discoveries, but also to be pitied for their endless attention to usually pointless (to the reader) detail.

    I think it’s a rhetorical strategy aimed at general readers. I’ve heard a number of scientists use the same sort of self-deprecating humor to help make people think of what they do as something common folk can understand or at least relate to.

  25. says

    I think there’s a need for the history of various disciplines, with personalities – something like the old “Hunger Fighters” or “Microbe Hunters” books by Paul de Kruif.

    OF course, they’re ancient, but they do convey the excitement of the chase.

  26. CalGeorge says

    I am liking Angier’s book.

    I needed her reminders about how statistics work.

    As I was taking off in a plane for the West Coast, I was reading about how unlikely it would be for me to end up in a plane crash.

    All those thoughts of a horrible death just melted away!

  27. ds says

    I’ve not read the book, but I am a bit upset by your attitude toward humanities students.

    Mathematics and many things scientific (astronomy, physics, etc.) fascinate me, but I am eternally grateful that I was able to fulfill an undergrad science requirement with an introductory astronomy course designed (so freshmen wisdom went) for football players. And I barely survived high school algebra, geometry, biology and chemistry.

    The simple fact is that, no matter how hard I have tried over the years, I simply cannot wrap my brain around anything more technical than the most basic and general of scientific principles. (I memorized theorems because I was totally incapable of understanding them enough to develop them from the underlying axioms.) And don’t even mention calculus, statistics or economics to me.

    Perhaps I am wrong to assume that science and math majors will have less trouble understanding English lit. than English lit. students will have understanding biology, but for people like me, don’t you think that “watered-down” science is better than no science at all?

  28. gwangung says

    Would that the science types take as much joy in a turn of a phrase and word play for its own sake as the humanities type take joy in building the logic to solve a problem or to find something new.

    I don’t think the elitism show by the science types in this thread is particularly useful or as well based as what they detect in other fields towards them.

  29. mmills says

    I am a fan of Natalie Angier and looked forward to her The Canon with perhaps too high an expectation. I managed to get through the entire book and found especially the chapters on Probabilities and on Evolutionary Biology rewarding of the effort. Overall, the writing style is dry and textbook-like with unfortunate attempts at humour and wordplay that ranged from just too-too clever to inane groaners that made me feel like closing the book. I also found the seemingly endless page after page of her mixture of basic scientific information and anthropomorphized analogies to be an often dreary mountainous climb.

  30. says

    A comment – I suspect that most contemporary physicists would find most of Newton’s Principia extremely difficult to follow, since there is next to no calculus in it and requires much more geometrical sophistication than we are used to.