The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

By Natalie Angier. <i>Houghton Mifflin</i>. $27.<br /> Once, while writing a story on whale genetics, Natalie Angier was asked by an editor to confirm that a whale is a mammal, and that a mammal is, in fact, an animal.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


Once, while writing a story on whale genetics, Natalie Angier was asked by an editor to confirm that a whale is a mammal, and that a mammal is, in fact, an animal. That was the last straw for Angier, one of America’s preeminent science writers, who has watched with dismay as our collective scientific literacy has shriveled into oblivion. Back when we had the space race, Sputnik, and punch-card computers, science seemed important, even cool. Today, American adults know less about biology than their counterparts 200 years ago.

We may not rotate our own crops anymore, but scientific know-how is still a vital part of our lives, argues Angier. And she sets out to prove it: With the help of hundreds of scientists, she tackles chemistry, physics, astronomy, and other fields a chapter at a time, offering practical yet whimsical tutorials that make the “invisible visible.” We learn that proteins look like “origami animals made of butter and clay,” the Earth’s mantle resembles Silly Putty, and tectonic plates grow at the same speed as our fingernails. All this is meant to dispel the “myth of the rare nerd,” the idea that scientific curiosity belongs only at grade-school science fairs or locked away in laboratories.

Angier makes nerdiness fun but also points out that scientific literacy is serious business. Debates about stem cells, global warming, and alternative energy might be less contentious if the scientific issues behind them were better understood. Some of her proposals are truly radical, such as the idea that the word “theory” should be booted from the scientific lexicon, given how the phrase “evolutionary theory” has been deliberately twisted by creationists. But such measures wouldn’t be necessary in a nation that knew the difference between science and bunk.


If you buy a book using the Bookshop link on this page, a small share of the proceeds supports our journalism.

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate