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The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science Hardcover – May 1, 2007

3.5 out of 5 stars 146 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Pulitzer-winning science writer Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography) distills everything you've forgotten from your high school science classes and more into one enjoyable book, a guide for the scientifically perplexed adult who wants to understand what those guys in lab coats on the news are babbling about, in the realms of physics, chemistry, biology, geology or astronomy. More important even than the brief rundowns of atomic theory or evolution—enlivened by interviews with scientists like Brian Greene—are the first three chapters on scientific thinking, probability and measurement. These constitute the basis of a scientific examination of the world. Understand these principles, Angier argues, and suddenly, words like "theory" and "statistically significant" have new meaning. Angier focuses on a handful of key concepts, allowing her to go into some depth on each; even so, her explanations can feel rushed, though never dry. Angier's writing can also be overadorned with extended metaphors that obscure rather than explain, but she eloquently asks us to attend to the universe: to really look at the stars, at the plants, at the stones around us. This is a pleasurable and nonthreatening guide for anyone baffled by science. (May 8)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

Pulitzer Prize-winner Natalie Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography), a science journalist at the New York Times, was writing an article on whale genetics when her editor suggested that she define the term mammal for her readers and confirm that mammals are animals. That was the last straw for Angier, who nevertheless writes with respect for The Canon's intended audience. She incorporates imaginative metaphors, concise analogies, and jokes into her writing, which result in clear and accessible explanations of complex ideas. A few critics were annoyed by the scientific "sugarcoating" and the dizzying pace of the book, but most were impressed by Angier's lucid prose and clever word play.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (May 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618242953
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618242955
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (146 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #917,462 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Frederick S. Goethel VINE VOICE on May 10, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Writing about science is difficult, but writing about science well is a gift; one that this author possesses. As a degreed scientist, even I have problems with certain areas of science that are outside my realm (which is environmental biology) and am always looking for more information that will help me understand. This book did a wonderful job of explaining the various areas where I have difficulties (which includes most of the areas outside biology).

If you, like me, remember the talking head in science class that was speaking in tongues, you will appreciate this book. It will open up areas such as chemistry, geology, biology and others to a clearer understanding. And, understanding science is becoming more and more important in today's society as we become more technologically advanced and science oriented.

I recommend this book for everyone, including, or maybe more importantly, to the scientifically challenged. It will change the way you understand the latest in scientific news, as well as give you an all important base knowledge. And, the writing is well done, easy without being condescending, and fun.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There's a lot to like about this book. A guide for the literate adult who's nonetheless scientifically challenged, it lays out the basics of science -- the scientific method, probability and measurement -- and then uses them to explain astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics with an almost poetic style. It's packed with alarming facts (did you know a third of U.S. advanced science degrees go to foreign students?) and full of emotion, which, sadly, you don't often find anymore in scientific writing.

Trouble is, author Natalie Angier is just too passionate for her own good. She obviously knows her stuff, but her prose is just too artful, too flowery, too straight from a creative writing class, never meeting a metaphor it doesn't saddle up and ride like the wind. Describing the beauty of a mountain range, she instructs her readers to "gaze out over the vast cashmere accordion of earthscape, the repeating pleats swelling and dipping silently in the far horizon without even deigning to disdain you."

I think that means it's pretty.

I don't claim to be a serious writer, but with science, a vital topic that America seems to have completely lost touch with, we need books that can easily engage their readers. This one is not quite there. Two better choices are the classics The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence and The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History.
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Format: Hardcover
As a working scientist and a citizen of the world, I cannot recommend Natalie Angier's, "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science" highly enough for not only non-scientists and the scientifically illiterate, but also for those working in science who have forgotten the wonder and joy in their profession.

From the biggest questions about the nature of the universe to more personal questions concerning humankind's origins and internal workings, Angier brings not only her journalistic experience and exuberant curiosity to her subjects, she also interviews experts in the field who bring their own authority and creativity in explaining both concepts that are fundamental to our understanding of the physical world and the latest advancements that challenge and further our current knowledge.

An intelligent reader may now gain the scientific literacy necessary for life in the twenty-first century between the covers of one book, written in a playful, vivid, conversational style that nonetheless manages to impart important concepts without oversimplifying them. Natalie Angier has done the world a great service by bringing science in an accessible, entertaining form to a general audience. She has done her job, and now it is the public's turn to do theirs and fulfill its responsibility to educate and enlighten itself.
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Format: Paperback
I'm half way through this book, and it's become a chore. It feels as though someone wrote a perfectly good accessible science book, and then went back through their text and awkwardly shoe-horned in some stupid cutesy-ism or personal anecdote into almost every sentence. It's a shame, because the quips from actual scientists are often funny and light and relevant to the subject, something Angier is utterly incapable of doing when it's her turn to say something.

I remember a review describing this book as like taking a fun science class from your coolest teacher. In reality, this book is like taking a science class with that embarrassing trying-to-be-hip teacher who keeps telling unfunny jokes, and is too obtuse to realize that none of their students finds them the least bit amusing.
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Format: Paperback
Admirable as Ms. Angier's book is in its attempts to lay out the basics of science, she is far too continually sarcastic in her delivery for anything truly lasting to come from this book. I fear that when you finish 'The Canon,' you will come away with some anecdotes and nothing much else.

Here's an example of an author much too concerned with being funny, and not at all trusting to her subject matter:

"A top of the line radar can pinpoint the whereabouts of a housefly two kilometers away, although clearly this is a radar with far too much time on its hands."

"Fine. They are all light. They are all electromagnetic radiation. They are all - what?"

"The universe, though, doesn't only like to cut things short, it also opts for the sagging saga approach, dictating thick volumes of time that are nearly as unfathomable as Finnegan's Wake."

"Where might Ebola weigh in? And how many of any could dance on a pin?"

"Contrary to myth, time doesn't fly particularly fast when you're dead."

"Hold your Miss Havensham's, huffed the progressive-spirited Darrell."

After several hundred pages, these trite quips (appearing as they do ten a page) grow tiresome and even somewhat alarming. Ms. Angier does not trust her reader to surrender to the facination of her subject or her research and, like an annoying friend in a museum, continues to make jokes upon viewing each painting ('I mean, I guess you can paint with one ear, am I right?')

New Yorker readers (I am one) who are not much interested in science might find a friend in Ms. Angier as she presents 'boring' material with a wink and a nudge-nudge. But to those with curious minds who purchase a book like this to actually learn a few things, move along.
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