Sunday, October 28, 2007

Big Bang

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour Through the Beautiful Basics of Science
by Natalie Angier

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson

These two books are similar, yet with differences that make both of them worth the reader's time. I read the first a couple of months ago after seeing a review of it in the Washington Post Book World (that other Sunday Bible). Lately, I have been growing ever more aware of how woefully ignorant I am about matters of science - particularly the physical sciences of physics, chemistry and geology. Angier's book seemed like a good place to start learning - substantive without being overwhelming.

The Canon is a great read - Natalie Angier is a science writer who is obviously enchanted with her subject. Her chapter on calibration - the vastness of the universe on the one hand and the unimaginable tininess of the atom on the other - is fascinating. I knew absolutely nothing about geology, and found her description of the earth's crust, mantle, and core to be really well presented. There's one thing, though. Angier is funny, and funny is (nearly) always good. Anyone who can extract humor from subjects that beneath another pen would be really dry is doing well. However, sometimes her humor gets in the way of the information. There is a "Look at me, I can write about molecular biology and be witty at the same time!" affect to her writing that soon starts to grate on the reader's nerves. But, this is a small complaint compared to the way she presents amazingly complex information in a way that is accessible to a science neophyte.

A physicist friend recommended Bryson's book when I asked what he thought of The Canon. I had given it to E. for our anniversary a few years ago and remembered that he liked it a lot as well. So, a few days ago I plunged into it. Bryson is not by trade a science writer, and several years ago he found himself even more clueless about science than the average person (He writes "I did not know a proton from a protein . . ."). He devoted three years to extensive reading and conversations with some of the great science minds of our day, learning the basics and figuring out how to write about the discipline of science in a way that would open the mind of the sciencephobe.

I am really enjoying A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson covers a lot of the same material as Natalie Angier, but they approach the task differently. Bryson takes kind of a historical/linear approach, tracing us through the major scientific developments and giving us some idea of how the old guys (mostly guys) figured this stuff out in the first place. He includes delightful little biographical vignettes about some of the most well-known figures of science, including Newton and Einstein, as well as lesser known stars. How is it that so many truly brilliant people are also utter weirdos? Is there a correlation? Hmmmmm.

Both of these books have something to offer. Bryson's writing is more lyrical, less forced, but I do think that Angier, once you strip away the furbelows, presents the actual scientific concepts more clearly for the untrained reader.

It's fun to have wandered into a whole new realm of books and concepts to explore. I read Silent Spring a few weeks ago and am getting jazzed to read the new Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson. I never have understood the antipathy that so many people of faith have toward science. They are two different ways of trying to understand the world and what happens within it, so I do not see why one would threaten the other. In seminary, I once briefly dated a microbiologist. He said that he had not been a believer until he began to study science intensively and concluded that Someone had to have been at work in creating and ordering all this, there is no other way that order could have come from so much potential chaos.

And no, I don't believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

Any other suggestions for good science reading?

Reverent Reader


At 10/28/07, 7:59 PM , Anonymous Tom Taylor said...

I love the science books . . . duh! Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and KC Cole all present great, (mostly) accessible approaches to science. There's also a great novel about Biology researchers "Intuition" that I recommend for a fiction approach to science. Robert Wolfe also writes great books called, "What Einstein told his Cook" that deal with science and cooking!

At 10/29/07, 7:51 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey Tom - I was looking at your Brian Greene books when we visited you last week. They still look out of my depth! String Theory and particle physics are VERY hard for me to get my head around. "Intuition" sounds great, and I am definitely interested in the Wolfe books! Thanks for writing.


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