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The Canon – Natalie Angier *****
In The Canon, Natalie Angier introduces some of the fundamentals of science she argues everyone should know. The book has in mind people who struggled with or lost interest in science when they were young, and is very accessible and readable. I’m incredibly enthusiastic about this book and have no hesitation in giving it five stars.
The book covers more than I thought would be possible. After outlining what science is and how it works, Angier takes in turn physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology and astronomy, and explains in some detail four or five key ideas in each field. In the section on physics, for instance, she goes through the nature of atoms, the four fundamental forces, thermodynamics, and how electricity works.
The chapter on molecular biology is the best in the book, and here the role of DNA and how cells work are explained particularly well. Elsewhere, there is a very good section on the misunderstanding by some of the word ‘theory’ in ‘the theory of evolution'; it means a body of facts and principles which explain many things and make predictions, and not ‘hypothesis’.
Angier is so good in general in the book because she clearly appreciates why people are often put off by science, and she knows how to make it exciting. She stays clear of technical jargon and maths, which she shows are not necessary to get across what science is all about, and she is at times very funny. If there’s a small problem with the book, it’s that Angier occasionally writes quite long sentences with many sub-clauses, but this is a very minor point and does not stop the book being a great read.
Although best as a general overview for anyone coming back to science after having left it behind at school, the explanations in the book are so useful that regular readers of popular science will also get a great deal out of it. I’d highly recommend this to anyone.
Review by Matt Chorley
I am afraid I disagree with your assessment of The Canon which I thought was dreadful. The little satisfactory explanation of science in the book was so deeply buried in irrelevant similes, unnecessary alliteration, silly puns and references to (no doubt popular) contemporaneous US culture with no meaning to a UK reader that I would have given up after the first couple of chapters if I had not been preparing for a group discussion of the book. By contrast, I got far more information from The Collapse of Chaos by Cohen and Stewart, a truly well written and still entertaining book – the sophisticated jokes at the start of each chapter were thought provoking as well as amusing. Admittedly a more challenging read for anyone without a technical bent but vastly more rewarding.
The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.
Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.
This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.
Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.
In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…
There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).
It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…