Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Canon (copy)

My father-in-law was a reader. Before his demise, bless his soul, I used to love talking to him about books. One of his favorite authors, Patrick O'Brian, wrote 23 books in the Aubrey/Maturin series with Master and Commander as the anchor. Mr. Moran was in a happy seafaring knot as he would read all 23 then turn around and start again.

A very curious thing was pointed out to me during a visit in the summer of 2003. On Mr. Moran’s nightstand was a textbook titled Ionic and Non-Ionic Surfactants. When asked about the book, he said he read it when unable to sleep.

This is the first thing I thought when picking up The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier. The premise is promising, but sleep is certain.

I am happy to report this is one of the most engaging science books read. Angier won a Pulitzer Prize Beat Reporting award in 1991 for her compelling science writing at The New York Times. It was well deserved as she tackles topics in this book such as physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and astronomy with intelligence and humor.

The book begins with discussions on critical thinking, probability, and calibration before delving into major topics. In the probability chapter she demonstrates how one can predict whether a class of students, broken into two groups, tosses a coin 50 times or pretends. Both groups must record the number of heads and tails in sequential occurrence. Within seconds of looking at the two results, she has an answer. How?

The first topic, physics, is the foundation on which other sciences are built. Angier explains, “Physics is the science of starter parts and basic forces, and thus it holds the answers to many basic questions. Why is the sky blue? Why do you get a shock when you trudge across a carpeted room and touch a metal doorknob? Why does a white T-shirt keep you cooler in the sun than a black one, even though the black one is so much more slimming?”

Angier advocates teaching physics before all other topics. She likens beginning with chemistry and biology as to building walls and a roof before pouring the slab. I like the idea but wonder if students have enough math skills to accomplish physics first.

This is the perfect book to prop up on your chest while in bed. No need to worry about the effects of gravity.