Science, word play take 'Whirligig Tour'

By MICHAEL JANAIRO, Staff Writer
First published: Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science" by Natalie Angier. Read by Nike Doukas. Unabridged; 11 CDs; 13 hours. HighBridge Audio. $39.95.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Angier's frisky and fascinating new book gives "the nonscientist, nonpedagogued" (i.e., most adults) the essential facts on the hard sciences -- physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology and astronomy.

Now, don't be put off by that list. Sure, it may seem daunting, especially if you barely survived such subjects in high school, but Angier is a gentle guide.

The book, scheduled for publication in May, argues that adults have lost that childlike awe for science, so the primer is aimed at people (like me) who "still can't tell the difference between a proton, a photon, and a moron."

This enjoyable book succeeds not only because of this kind of word play, but also because it covers an amazing breadth of information, from the tiniest neutrino to the infinite expansiveness of the universe (as well as all the empty spaces in between), with a passion and cleverness that makes difficult concepts accessible.

You can catch Angier in person Thursday, April 12, at the University at Albany, where she'll give a reading at 4:15 p.m. at the Assembly Hall in the Campus Center as a guest of the New York State Writers Institute. In the same place at 8 p.m., Angier, an atheist, will debate "God vs. Science" with David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist who believes religion is a positive outcome of evolution. (His most recent book "Evolution for Everyone" received a mostly positive review on April 8 in The New York Times Book Review -- written by Angier, a New York Times science reporter.)

In her book, Angier trains her listeners to think differently, stressing that science isn't a collection of facts, but a way of thinking. Unfortunately, it often runs counter to conventional wisdom.

She calls this science's "PR problem"; people expect certainty from science on things such as what to eat or what drugs to take. But science, Angier says, can never prove anything is 100 percent true, only that something is more likely than something else within a narrow range of doubt. In other words, science is based not on certainty, but on working to eliminate uncertainty. It is a dynamic quest for knowledge that changes as more is known.

New findings, however, don't dismiss previous science, Angier notes. She points to Einstein's theory of relativity, saying the discovery didn't invalidate Newtons laws of physics. Rather, she says, Einstein elaborated on Newton because Newton's laws were insufficient in describing extreme cases, such as when a particle approaches the speed of light.

Another difficulty to thinking scientifically are human-centered measures of distance and time. For example, Angier says, mile refers to the distance a Roman soldier covers in 1,000 paces. And in talking about ancestors or descendants, we have easy to use words for only two generations (such as mom or grandson). Beyond that we're stuck with awkwardly hyphenated greats, one for each new generation.

These limits make thinking about atoms or geological time difficult, even frightening. But Angier does a wonderful job of putting most hard-to-grasp ideas within reach. She often asks the scientists she interviewed what something microscopic would look like if it were enlarged to, say, fit on a desk. A cell, for example, is described as "snot."

An atom, however, proves more elusive, and a scientist only reluctantly described it as a "cloud." The problem? According to the Heisenberg principle, the speed and position of an electron cannot be determined at the same time (that is, by defining one, you affect the other). You can't stop an atom to look at it.

But atoms are central to science, because everything is made up of atoms. The vague "cloud" though took me back to my high school physics and chemistry classes where I often felt like I just didn't get it. Through Angier I realize this has everything to do with metaphors and language.

For example, Angier can make clever metaphoric connections between the Earth's crust (the top layer we live on) and toast, a basketball, a bowling ball and ice on a frozen lake. But similar leaps are more difficult with atoms, because the language used to describe them -- positive and negative charges, nucleus, electrons, and electron shells -- are already metaphoric.

These aren't the only language difficulties the sciences face. Sometimes, scientists and other people use words differently. Perhaps most notably is the word theory.

Commonly used to mean "speculation," theory to a scientist is the opposite. A scientific theory is a principle that describes a phenomenon and is based on a preponderance of evidence. Angier focuses on this term in light of attempts by some people to conflate the two meanings by putting stickers on science text books that say Darwin's theory of evolution is just a theory. Then she refutes the sophistry of intelligent design in a way that is concise and scientific.

Earlier, I wrote that thinking scientifically can be frightening. For me, that occurred in the chapter on geology. Rocks are scary? Sure, if you remember the line from the T.S. Eliot poem "The Waste Land": "I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

Rocks that are billions of years old impressed upon me how fleeting human life is and led me to that insomniac, heart-thudding moment of trying to contemplate my mortality as being the end of all contemplation.

Not even the contention that Joni Mitchell was right and that we are all made up of star dust offered much consolation. However, the notion that science still has so much more to discover, not only naming all the species on Earth but also the possibility of life on other planets are ideas that could fill anyone with awe and wonder.

The reading by Doukas strikes the right energetic, playful and precise tone, matching the quality of Angier's writing throughout all 13 hours of this immensely educational and entertaining audiobook.

Michael Janairo can be reached at 454-5629 or by e-mail at mjanairo@timesunion.com.

Writer visits

Natalie Angier will be a guest of the New York State Writers Institute on Thursday, April 12, and will be taking part in two events.

READING

When: 4:15 p.m. Thursday

Where: Assembly Hall, Campus Center, University at Albany, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany

DEBATE

What: "God vs. Science"; Angier, an outspoken atheist, will speak with David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist who views religion as a successful and beneficial evolutionary phenomenon.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Assembly Hall, Campus Center, University at Albany

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2007, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Natalie Angier