‘The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science’ – A Review

The Canon is a playful book aimed at teaching adults basic science. Discover why the author felt readers needed this book and how it makes science fun again.

My relationship with science has always been complicated. I’m a lifelong learner, and I’ve always been too curious for my own good. 

When it comes to math, which is the hard sciences’ backbone, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride. I won the gold medal for business studies in high school. I could always figure out the answer if you put a dollar sign in front of it.

When it came to abstract math like algebra and trigonometry, it was a different story. Looking back, I don’t think it was because I lacked the aptitude for math. I was just lazy and apathetic about learning impractical things.

“What’s physics like?” “Lots of math”

One day our grade ten biology teacher went over the next year’s options for science courses. One of the students asked, “What’s physics like?” “Lots of math,” he replied. 

That was enough for me. I stuck to commercial math and accounting in grade eleven. During my high school years, I learned precisely nothing about Newton’s laws or the periodic table as a result.

I’ll never know if I would have applied myself to the mathematical formulas that physics entails. I made it through Corporate Finance, Economic Statistics, and Calculus in university. Still, I think my ambivalence toward math in the abstract would have been my worst enemy if I’d chosen a career in science.

I Have a Passion for Science, but It’s Complicated

As readers know, I write about science every day, so I clearly have a passion for it. I respect and admire the scientific method as well as the scientific literature. As I said, it’s complicated.

I’m not alone in my mixed feelings about science. Studies show that most people view math and science as difficult, impractical and tedious. 

This state of affairs inspired science writer Natalie Angier to publish her book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. As she puts it, “I believe that first pass presumptions and non-explanatory explanations are a big reason why people shy away from science.”

“Presenting Science as a Code You Can’t Crack”

Angier quotes Professor Peter Galison of Harvard as saying, “After years of writing tedious textbooks with terrible graphics, and of presenting science as a code you can’t crack, of divorcing science from ordinary human processes that use it daily, guess what: We did it. We persuaded a large number of people that what they once thought was fascinating, fun, the most natural thing in the world is alien to their existence.”

Angier’s own relationship with science is as complicated as mine. The reason she gives for becoming a science communicator instead of a scientist is that “I didn’t want to ruin a beautiful affair by getting married.” Precisely!

Before delving into the principles that make up her canon of basic science, Angier establishes a foundation for her readers in the next three chapters after her introduction. She introduces science as not a body of facts but a way of thinking.

Instill an Approach and a Way of Thinking

One of the barriers she perceives between most people and the sciences is that science teachers emphasize the scientific literature over the scientific method. The goal shouldn’t be to teach a body of knowledge, according to Angier, but to instill an approach and a way of working.

In the following chapter, she outlines the importance of quantitative methods like statistics for scientific literacy. She points to ways in which many of us are easily impressed by such coincidences as two people in a group sharing a birthday or someone winning the lottery twice.

In doing this, Angier introduces a sense of proportion as well as healthy skepticism. She shows that we have many misconceptions and that these have practical consequences like leading us to invest our money foolishly. 

Sense of Proportion as Well as Healthy Scepticism

She also shows that we’re all relatively good at quantifying something within a given order of magnitude with a bit of discipline and perseverance. For example, we can estimate how many school buses there are within our school district with some precision.

She goes on to provide a sense of scale. She reminds us of an experience we’ve all had at one time or another.

When we return to a place from our childhood, it seems much smaller than we remember. The author explains the importance of units of measure for quantifying the very large, like our galaxy and the very small, like elementary particles. 

Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology and Astronomy

Having set the stage with these three sets of principles, Angier finally dives into her explanations of scientific principles. She addresses physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy. 

Her explanations derive from hundreds of extensive interviews with leading experts in these fields. She explains each discipline in simple terms, and like many science communicators, her book is an equation-free zone. 

As she explains, mathematics is a language. There’s almost nothing we say mathematically that we can’t express in plain English. I’m reminded of Einstein’s comment that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. Incidentally, Einstein once wrote an equation-free book about his theory of relativity to make his point.

Sets Out to Make Science Fun Again for Adults

Angier sets out to make science fun again for adults, and she accomplishes that remarkably well. I’d recommend this book to anybody who missed out on science in their school years but wants to rekindle their childhood curiosity.

At times, though, I can’t help thinking that Angier is having too much fun with her writing style. She enjoys playing with words, but sometimes this comes at the expense of clarity. 

For example, at one point, she writes, “If even the schlemiel’s guide to the atom begins with a boilerplate trot through concepts that are pitched as elementary and self-evident but that don’t, when you really think about them, mean anything, what hope is there for mastering the text in cartoon balloon number two?”

Wordplay Is Clever if You Have the Patience for It

 The wordplay is clever if you have the patience for it, but a little more straightforward language and a little less of the whirligig might have helped her achieve her goal of explaining science to everyday people.

Even so, the book is both fun and thorough, and it’s a great introduction to the physical sciences. It’s aimed at adults, which is rare, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to make up for lost curiosity.

As Angier writes at one point, “Surely not even the most feebly educated adult is beyond hope? Let’s focus on them: What should non-specialist non-children know about science, and how should they know it, and what is this thing called fun?”

 We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
The Known World
The 5 Big Questions We Need Cosmology to Answer
Origin of Life Before the Origin of Species: 4 Theories
Neuromyths: No, You Don’t Have a Learning Style

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