PD Smith

The magical mystery tour of science

31 March 2008 | Reviewing, Writing & Poetry | 8 comments

I've just reviewed The Canon: The Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier for The Independent. Her reason for writing The Canon is excellent: namely, that science is fun: “It’s fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun.” Angier's book is a very good survey of the big ideas of science, although I did have a few problems with her writing style, as you'll see from the review.

Angier writes with particular enthusiasm about the “outrageous magic” of astronomy. Although physicists, biologists and chemists might have an image problem in the public domain (think nukes, Frankenfoods, and pesticides), astronomers are the “responsible eco-tourists” of science. They probe the infinite depths of the cosmos from a distance with their telescopes and ask the really big questions: Where do we come from? How did it all begin?

“We are star stuff, a part of the cosmos,” one scientist tells her. “The specific atoms in every cell of your body, my body, my son’s body, the body of your pet cat, were cooked up inside massive stars. To me, that is one of the most amazing conclusions in the history of science, and I want everybody to know about it.”

At the weekend, the Guardian ran my review of Dan O'Neill's excellent The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement, as well as The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, by Rob Hopkins. Read those here.

8 comments so far:

  1. Gary William Murning | 31 March 2008

    I’ve only recently (the past year or so) started to "revisit" science seriously after years of "distractions". I’ve always had an interest, but it was a much neglected area in my life. Now, I’m hooked -- to such a degree that I’m hardly reading an fiction (apart from... yup, science fiction!)

    I can understand Angier's anger. The wonder of science (Dawkin's Unweaving the Rainbow is my favourite expression of this "wonder", incidentally) is communicated so little these days, and often badly. It's depressing -- especially so when superstition slips in to take its place.

    In spite of it's flaws, it sounds like a valient attempt.

  2. PD Smith | 31 March 2008

    Yes, I'm all in favour of the wonder of science (although I do think Dawkins is a bit harsh on literary writers for not engaging sufficiently with science) and I wanted to like this book... but I just thought she rather over-egged the pudding - to use a good old phrase.

    Don't let me put you off though! Give it a whirl and let me know what you think...

  3. Michael | 01 April 2008

    Hi, I feel left out here, as she wrote this one only for non-scientists ... I am a huuuuge fan of her earlier book "Woman -- an intimate geography" though. I think that this is one of the best science books I have ever read. I completely agree with Gloria Steinem's verdict "anyone living in or near a female body should read this book".

    btw, I've added you to my blogroll at http://www.proseandpassion.com , so it will be easier to stop by every once in a while ...

  4. PD Smith | 01 April 2008

    Hi Michael

    I've not read that one although I've heard it's good. I should add it to my list...

  5. Gary William Murning | 02 April 2008

    Yes, well, as much as I admire Dawkins, he does get carried away at times, doesn't he? Can’t help wishing I'd had him as a science teacher at school, though... Dawkins for biology, Feynman for physics... now, who for chemistry?

    I think I’ll probably give it a miss actually, Peter... I'm not overfond of overegged puddings -- and my reading list is already pretty unrealistic for a single lifetime 😉

  6. PD Smith | 02 April 2008

    Yes, I agree completely about your choice of science teachers. Actually I had a very good chemistry teacher and always liked the subject (in contrast to physics, I have to admit).

    How about Philip Ball as a chemistry teacher? A really excellent writer. His biography of Paracelsus was superb. I believe he's got more than one new book out this year... Have a look at his homunculus blog.

  7. Gary William Murning | 03 April 2008

    Not familiar with Philip Ball -- though homunculus is now safely tucked away in the science section of my feedreader. The Self-made Tapestry looks like a must-read, too, but, boy, it ain't cheap! (I've still put it in my Amazon basket, though 😉 )

    I'll have to stop coming here. You'll have me in the workhouse yet lol

  8. PD Smith | 03 April 2008

    glad to be able to spread the word...

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