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.