Natalie Angier's The Canon attempts to explain science to they layman but is defeated by its subject's denseness, says Ian Beetlestone
By Ian Beetlestone
The premise of The Canon, illustrated by the author's sister cancelling her children's science museum membership as they reach adolescence, is that there is an imbalance to be redressed. Why is it that worldly Manhattan sophisticates feel a working knowledge of the arts is a prerequisite for a fulfilled existence, but that the sciences are irrelevant, something for nerdy adults with no social skills to obsess about?
This book sets out an alternative pantheon. Instead of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bach, Beethoven, Rembrandt and Picasso, here's the Big Bang, cell structure, evolution and DNA. It's alluring, exciting even, to be shown 'the fairy tales of sciences that happen to be true'. Sciences are 'hard the way diamonds and rubies are hard,' Angier tells us. 'They're built to last and they sure look swell in the light.'
Starting with the idea that 'the best way to teach science to non-scientists is to go for depth over breadth', Angier's research takes her to numerous leaders in their field to find out what they wish people better understood. This is then set out in chapters covering physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy, with a couple of ice-breaking chapters discussing probability, measurement and scientific thinking.
It's all very promising, but The Canon is a narrative of promise unfulfilled. Angier's chapters are long, dense and absolutely packed with theory. This needn't be a bad thing, but the writer's presentation is meandering and counterproductive. '[Science is] fun the way rich ideas are fun. Understanding how things work feels good. Look no further - there's your should.' This is Angier's argument for our participation in her re-education project, but the writing gives a different impression.
Jokes are built into almost every paragraph and their structure, usually a series of serious scenarios followed by a comical one, is tiresome. On the phenomena of physics, she asks: 'What distinguishes a fundamental force of nature from the more familiar, frightening forces of nature, like hurricanes, earthquakes, Donald Trump's hairpiece?'
Angier argues that science is for sophisticates and then spends an entire book dressing it up in silly clothes to make it more palatable. Not only is this annoying, it is self-defeating. 'I like science,' she writes, 'I trust it.' Yet her text tells a different story. The folksy humour and the optimistic, upbeat delivery are perhaps just a manifestation of native style in what is a very American book; in fact The Canon is at its most successful when this is in the foreground. The chapter on evolution is an impassioned plea for reason that holds an extra anthropological significance for the British reader. 'Only 35 per cent of American adults agreed with the statement that "evolution is a scientific theory well supported by the evidence",' we're told. From over here, that is pretty startling.
There are further successes elsewhere. The chapter on geology begins at the Earth's iron core and progresses, layer by layer, to the furthest reaches of the atmosphere. It's a logical sequence and a narrative the lay reader can easily follow. It ends by segueing with great skill into the final chapter on astronomy, with a discussion of that unimaginably profound experience known only to a handful of fortunate space pioneers, 'the transformative moment when they first looked down on the oneness of bright-blue marble Earth, their only home, and Earth looked back and said, "I know."' It is gorgeously put, but there are too few similarly moving moments in a book that promised many.
But then, enticing though the premise was, it was flawed. Science cannot be accessed in this way. The layman wants a demonstration. Science maintains its outsider status not by means of a conspiracy against its nerdiness, but because, as its advocate readily enthuses, it is big, unwieldy, impossible to pin down. Still, The Canon makes a valiant attempt
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