Wincing Whirligigs, Batman!

jacket_the_canon.jpg The Canon
Natalie Angier
Houghton Mifflin, 2007
ISBN: 0618242953
A whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science. The subtitle says it all. Natalie Angier provides a one-chapter crash course on each of the natural sciences, and the scientific method and probability to boot. Worthy stuff, and I’ve been looking for a single volume like this; something I can give to my friends and family, not too demanding, but enough science to excite them and help them see things a little bit from my nerdy point of view. It’s not a long book (although the designer cheats with very tight linespacing), and Angier is a New York Times reporter with a Pulitzer. So why did it irritate me so much that I reached the end only through sheer bloody-mindedness, audibly wincing every few pages?

Like I said, the subtitle says it all. We know what a whirlwind tour is, but what the heck is a whirligig tour? Poetically, one that’s hectic and constantly changing; literally, it’s a pinwheel, a brightly-coloured child’s toy that’s amusing and pointless. An unfortunate metaphor, and the first of many. Angier loves slapdash metaphors. Also flowery turns of phrase, obscure and only somewhat-appropriate words, zany non-sequiturs, and alliteration (e.g., the beautiful basics in the subtitle). Here’s a typical paragraph.

Scientific notation works just as well for the furtive as for the discursive, although in this case you’re talking about powers of one-tenth rather than powers of ten. One-tenth of one-tenth is one-hundredth, written as 10-2; one-tenth of one-hundredth is one-thousandth, or 10-3. Keep biting the right-handed bit of Alice’s toadstool. Down you go, you’re a fractionated Italianate family. You’re milli — a thousandth, 10-3; or micro — a millionth, 10-6; or nano — a billionth, 10-9; or pico — a trillionth, 10-12; or femto — a millionth of a billionth, 10-15.

Some people might like this sort of wordplay, but it gives me hives–and it’s not even good wordplay. Furtive for small is nice, but since when did discursive mean big? Meandering and full of digressions, like Angier’s metaphors, yes, perhaps expansive, but only incidentally large. And what’s up with Italianate? Does she mean Latinate (although the prefixes are actually Greek)? Or do Nano and Pico sound like comical Italian names? (Pico Iyer’s the only Pico I know of, and his name’s Indian.) Lastly, the Lewis Carroll reference is just a bit too sloppy: it’s a mushroom, not a toadstool (an important distinction, if you’re eating it). And it makes you grow taller and shorter, not bigger and smaller–in the original, Alice elongates and contracts like a caterpillar.

Every page is like this. Angier plunders the dictionary for shiny words: proptosically, vinculum, slub, and surl. As she flails for synonyms, the soup of particles in stellar formation becomes a cosmic chowder or a plasmic bisque, until the star and the metaphor collapse in a ball of baklava, whatever that’s supposed to look like. Every page has its pun, mostly lame. Pop culture allusions abound but are random and baffling rather than illuminating. And lists of three or more things always, without exception, conclude with something wacky.

…one might find organisms that take in nutrients, excrete waste, replicate, and actually use the fondue set they got as a wedding present.…

As for Pluto and Sedna and others of their subcompact class, whether you consider them planets, dwarf planets, planetismals, planet parodies, or Planters party mix…

Dave Barry it’s not. Which is a shame, because if you can get past the florid language she does a pretty good job of explaining one or two core concepts from each of chemistry, physics, astronomy and so on. There are some factual blunders, as you’d expect in a book covering all of science–I only picked up the biological ones. She says the platypus comes from New Zealand, and the carpal is just a single bone. Those hackneyed tetrapod forelimbs get trotted out again (she’s got me doing it now), and they’re poetically called homonyms–words that sound the same but have different meanings–but her metaphor is almost exactly backwards: bat and cat forelimbs are superficially different but share a deep, homologous, structure. Most importantly, she constantly confuses the fact of evolution (using examples from the fossil record) and Darwin’s theory; the fossils she cites support descent with modification but not natural selection.

It’s a shame. Angier is an great science journalist, but The Canon‘s enthusiasm has a whiff of anxiety, as if she was so worried about getting through to the science-averse that her entire rhetorical bag of tricks was upended on the table. If you’re happy to sort though the pile for the good stuff, you’ll enjoy this book more than I did. But I’d still rather recommend Bill Bryson.

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