Get One For A Friend

Science and Society… Science Education. You’ve heard me speak of this issue so many times here, so I won’t repeat myself too much. Seems that Natalie Angier is in agreement – So much so that she took matters into her capable hands and wrote a book to try to change things: “Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science”. I have not read it, but I’ve heard a lovely NPR interview with her today, and she read an extract. You can hear it at this NPR site, and also read an even longer extract there.

natalie angier's canonIn the interview, she backed off a bit from saying that everyone learning a bit of basic science literacy is of vital importance (increasingly so in this day and age, I’d say), although she acknowledges that there are a number of us in the scientific community who do think so. You’ll notice the -perhaps understandably- lighter approach (“these things are fun…” ) that is taken in the book blurb I quote below. While I agree that the fun part is very important indeed (and we really need to get that across a lot!), and that one should always try to persuade rather than scare, I do think that we’re in a dangerous situation sometimes with regards the overall science education and attitude to science of our citizenry. We should definitely not be reluctant to say it. I think that she thinks so too, but does not – when promoting a book – want to make the book seem like it is bitter medicine, but rather, a bit of tasty candy. I’d prefer to think of books like this as a delicious piece of fruit: both tasty and good for you. To be fair, I should mention that in the interview, while declining to subscribe entirely to the view herself, she mentioned a scientist acquaintance who considers the issue as analogous to the urgency for everyone to acquire literacy when the world changed and printing and the written word became common currency. While we are not quite there yet, I’m inclined to agree with that view, on balance…

Well, rather than repeat myself endlessly on this interesting matter, here’s the blurb from her website:

THE CANON is vital reading for anyone who wants to understand the great issues of our time—from stem cells and bird flu to evolution and global warming. And it’s for every parent who has ever panicked when a child asked how the earth was formed or how electricity works. Angier’s sparkling prose and memorable metaphors bring the science to life, reigniting our own childhood delight in discovering how the world works. “Of course you should know about science,” writes Angier, “for the same reason Dr. Seuss counsels his readers to sing with a Ying or play Ring the Gack: These things are fun and fun is good.”

THE CANON is a joyride through the major scientific disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy. Along the way, we learn what’s actually happening when our ice cream melts or our coffee gets cold, what our liver cells do when we eat a caramel, why the horse reveals evolution at work, and how we’re all made of stardust. It’s Lewis Carroll meets Lewis Thomas—a book that will enrapture, inspire, and enlighten.

I’ve not read it, but I’m going to guess that overall, this will be a very good read indeed! From what I gather, it is not one of those books of dry facts. Facts alone do not make science. It sounds like she’s taken care to write a book that also gets across the process, the beauty and the poetry of science. This makes for a good book.

[Update: KC Cole has a review of the book in Sunday’s LA Times book section. She likes it, overall, with some reservations that she explains carefully. Have a look at the review here.]

I hope you might consider reading it, if looking for such a way into a variety of science topics…. and/or give it as a gift to someone who is.



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18 Responses to Get One For A Friend

  1. spyder says:

    Why do i get the feeling of watching a CTW production featuring all sorts of puppets and glitzy greenscreen f/x proclaiming “like you know, how totally fun science, right?” A super-duper rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills, making high school chemistry class seem like an action movie. But then, we have already had so much that, and it doesn’t seem to have gotten us much further down the road–more than 25% of the population of the US believe that their deity will return in 2007???? Maybe science in fun in a twilight zone sort of way?

  2. Pioneer1 says:

    I didn’t read the book, but I was just writing about the issue that, actually, I don’t need to know any science at all to have a good life. I don’t mean like ignorance is bliss, but, like, all of us are specialists in one field, and I don’t see why what is called organized science today should be any more important. There was a comment on my blog saying that interpreting huge data sets is more art than science and I agree. Then, artists are more scientists than scientists. So, why not then leave the science business to the experts? And why should the experts need to proselytize?

  3. Clifford says:

    Continuing the analogy with literacy a little bit more (although we must be careful), isn’t that like saying (at about the time the printing press was getting going)… Why not leave this reading and writing business to the experts? Let some friendly priest or other learned person in the village do your reading for you… where’s the harm?

    Same issue here….. why not just let the government (and its friends in the business world) get on with deciding policy that has anything to do with science. A few years down the road….How did our air get like this? Our water? Our energy policy? Our local transport infrastructure? Our health treatments… etc. Our rivers, streams, parks, oceans…Our environment……. Did we not trust these guys to take care of these issues for us, so we did not have to think about it?


  4. Pioneer1 says:

    This is great quote. I have been thinking about this issue myself.

    There is a dilemma here I don’t know how to resolve. There is no time to get involved with all the issues you list. I have maybe 3 hours after work every day, and during that time I want to write an article for my blog. What is your attitude on this? Are you engaged with issues you list to your satisfaction?

    One other comment that I may have is that since the time of printing press the relative literacy did not change. I cannot prove this as a scientific fact, but what happened was that, when workers moved from working the fields to manufacturing in the city they needed to have a minimum of literacy to do their jobs probably. And society allowed them to learn as much, not more. The professional classes stayed the same and they still control literacy. For example, by making some schools exclusive. So, when I compare myself to a peasant in the 17th century I am as ignorant as he was regarding scientific issues. I have no idea what human genome is, I don’t know intricacies of physics theories such as String theory and so on….

    And one last thing, the topic of this post is a book published by the Big Media. Why do I need to buy that book? Why doesn’t the author make it available freely online so that I can read it? Her goal is not to contribute to human knowledge but to sell books, it seems to me. So the Big Media is still controlling to great extent the flow of information.

  5. Clifford says:

    And one last thing, the topic of this post is a book published by the Big Media. Why do I need to buy that book? Why doesn’t the author make it available freely online so that I can read it? Her goal is not to contribute to human knowledge but to sell books, it seems to me. So the Big Media is still controlling to great extent the flow of information.

    With all due respect, that’s incredibly naive. The way things are set up now, if she had written the book and distributed it freely online, most people would never have heard of it. She’s going to reach a lot more people this way than what seems to be the “better”. Within the system we have now, getting a good publisher with an excellent distribution network is the best way to get your ideas out to the people you want to reach….. Furthermore, you’re saying that you would not acquire some knowledge and maybe a little entertainment or the price of a few lousily made cups of coffee-flavoured drinks?

    Also, if I may…. it is not all or nothing. Nobody is saying that everyone should be fluent in all matters scientific, any more than everyone has read all the great works of literature, or has followed the politics of every country in the world. But is it that much of a stretch to ask for *some*? Nobody is asking that the general public know anything about “intricacies of physics theories such as string theory”…. but is it too much to ask that they know a few things about what science actually is, what the scientific process is, what some of the debates that affect them directly might be about?

    I don’t think it is that much to ask. It’s not all or nothing. It is very achievable.



  6. Amara says:

    Pioneer1 sounds like he/she is proud to be ignorant? If I’m misunderstanding, then apologies, but a glimpse at the web site from which he/she wrote doesn’t help me understand his/her perspective either.

  7. Michael says:

    Another excellent book, which gives a humorous all-encompassing view of science is Bill Brysons “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” If you’re going to read it though, it’s well worth the extra cost to get the full illustrated edition.

  8. Carol+crew says:

    A good read for Zachary, perhaps! Thanks

  9. Clifford says:

    Given that his first birthday is not for a couple of weeks yet, I’m be really impressed if he was reading!! But you can save it up for him!

    (For those wondering…. Carol is my sister, Zachary is my nephew!)


  10. Yvette says:

    I second Bryson- the guy has singlehandedly done more for science than most people have ever done who actually studied the subject. Can’t tell you how many people have talked my ear off about science because they happened to read the book…

    Of course, I am biased because I was lucky enough to meet him a few months back when he visited Auckland. It’s sort of hard to ever speak ill of anyone who encourages your plans to become a scientist/writer with more wholehearted enthusiasm than your actual aquaintences, saying that “the world needs more Carl Sagans.” 🙂

  11. Pioneer1 says:

    Hi Amara,

    I cannot blame you, I don’t understand my perspective either 🙂 Any help would be appreciated! Looking at your site, though, I see that, your work is well defined and well focused on one topic, that must be nice.

    I am not proud to be ignorant. I think that computers can be ignorant, you turn off a computer and it knows nothing. Humans are always on. Each individual’s knowledge is different but no one is really ignorant.

    What I mean is that, consider Clifford mentioning above in his first comment the priests who controlled knowledge up to the time of the invention of the printing press. Those priests defined ignorance to be not knowing Latin. According to this definition 99 percent of population today would be ignorant.

    Not only in old Europe but even in this country today theoretical knowledge is considered to be the true knowledge, as opposed to useful and practical knowledge. So we tend to call people who are not literate ignorant. But this is not true.

  12. Pioneer1 says:

    Within the system we have now, getting a good publisher with an excellent distribution network is the best way to get your ideas out to the people you want to reach…..

    And books still have more authority than online publishing. I tried to find the book at my lunch break but Barnes & Noble did not have it.

    The publisher’s review at Amazon has this interesting quote:

    “Angier’s writing can also be overadorned with extended metaphors that obscure rather than explain…”

    It is the first time I read a publisher’s review which contains something critical (even mildly) of the book they are marketing. But it is nice that “she eloquently asks us to attend to the universe…”

  13. Clifford says:

    Pioneer1 said:

    Not only in old Europe but even in this country today theoretical knowledge is considered to be the true knowledge, as opposed to useful and practical knowledge. So we tend to call people who are not literate ignorant. But this is not true.

    cvj replies:

    You pretty much made that up out of whole cloth. You’ve simply invented a non-existent position so that you can argue against it. How odd. If you tend to call people who are not literate ignorant, then please go ahead and tell yourself off, but it seems a bit strong to extrapolate your own behaviour to everyone else… And where in my post ,or in any of what Natalie Angier said in her interview, was lack of ordinary literacy (or for that matter, scientific literacy) equated with plain ignorance (in the broad and pejorative sense that I suspect you mean)?

    And anyway, what on earth (or anywhere else) is “theoretical knowledge”?!



  14. Clifford says:

    Continuing on the “theoretical knowledge” tripe for just a bit longer (forgive my reduced patience here, but this sort of business of trying to drive a wedge between science and the everyday is both annoying and dangerous, and one of the things I try to fight against)…. help me/us understand what this is exactly.

    Is understanding a few basic facts about inheritance, and/or the role of DNA in our everyday biology, perhaps the very idea of genetic diseases…. is that “theoretical knowledge” (whatever the hell that means) or, what for you seems to be the opposite, “practical knowledge”? What about understanding the possible multiple roles that the carbon dioxide we all produce (directly or indirectly) has in our everyday lives… is that “theoretical knowledge” or “practical knowledge”…?

    Enlighten us here please.


  15. Pioneer1 says:

    You pretty much made that up out of whole cloth.

    First, my apologies for being careless with words. I didn’t intend to take that position. But I bought the book today and I was reading it in the train coming back home and I think it is a nice book. So thanks for posting it.

    I was dedicated not to like the book but she mentions several ideas that I thought were interesting. One is, probably you and others here already know this, or something like it, but she relates a story attributed to Feynman where the civilization is annihilated and you are the only surviving human and you will have to decide which discovery to save for future generations so that humans could recover their civilization. She calls this “post-apocalypse reconstruction.” This human survivor would need to reduce the entire human civilization to one idea or algorithm or formula. What is your response to this? What about other readers? Would a scientist or a “man in the street” could make the right decision here?

    She starts the book by mentioning how her nephews graduated from science museum and the zoo to “refined forms of entertainment” like art museums and theater. I thought this was so interesting. In our society science is considered an activity for children!

    So thanks once again, I recommend the book. Although it was 30 bucks, not as you mentioned the price of a couple of flavored coffee drinks.

    And anyway, what on earth (or anywhere else) is “theoretical knowledge”?!

    I checked google definitions and surprisingly I found only one definition for theoretical knowledge and I did not agree with it. I can only sketch briefly what I believe theoretical knowledge is. So this is my opinion and it is a generalization of Observed minus Computed method used in astronomy and in all sciences. I think knowledge is the error. O-C process is the only way we can know. I would say that if both observed and computed are computed then we are dealing with theoretical knowledge. Or if the error somehow contains terms which are not in the observed or computed, again, that would be theoretical knowledge.


  16. Clifford says:

    I must admit that I am surprised that you found even one definition.

    Well, I’m glad you got and liked the book. Perhaps that is all that matters.


  17. Pingback: Science bending physics of Angier’s canon at Freedom of Science

  18. Joanne says:

    I recently met a famous actor and he asked what I did. When I explained briefly and simply about being a university science educator in the field of stem cells and tissue engineering, I expected a usual response of “oh?! how interesting!” followed by another question, indicating that they had at least heard of the field OR a “tell me more” type question, but instead it was as if I had opened the door to a closet long abandoned and a lonely little moth flew on out. He didn’t even know enough science to feign interest or ask further. That part of the conversation was DONE. I discovered that he has ADD and dyslexia, so certainly his relationship with traditional education was not stellar, yet, kudos to him, he somehow intuitively chose the right path for himself and made his life successful.

    This has got me thinking about whether we should try to engage these people, who’ve apparently gotten along just fine without their own science knowledge, in a modicum of science literacy training, and if so, exactly how do we do it? It is highly unlikely that any book of this length would do it. How about daily high interest excerpts sent by text message? Haha!

    Even if it were fruitless (just tied into your fruit analogy by accident!) to reach these people, we certainly don’t want the majority of a technologically advanced nation’s population to function at this level, so I believe this is a very valid reason for doing outreach to children, while we can still capture their attention! So, why don’t we give this book to a teacher or two!