Quick Review: The Canon

When recently at the Field Museum in Chicago, I encountered several books in the bookstore. I tracked down one of them, a former bestseller, down at the library: The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier. A few quick thoughts about the book:

1. This book is an overview of the basic building blocks of science (there are the chapters in order): thinking scientifically, probabilities, scale (different sizes), physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology, and astronomy. Angier interviewed a number of scientists and she both quotes and draws upon their ideas. For someone looking for a quick understanding of these subjects, this is a decent find. From this book, one could delve into more specialized writings.

2. Angier is a science writer for the New York Times. While she tries to bring exuberance to the subject, her descriptions and adjectives are often over the top. This floweriness was almost enough to stop me from reading this book at a few points.

3. To me, the most rewarding chapters were the first three. As a social scientist, I could relate to all three of these and plan to bring some of these thoughts to my students. Thinking scientifically is quite different than the normal experience most of us have of building ideas and concepts on anecdotal data.

a. A couple of the ideas stuck out to me. The first is a reminder about scientific theories: while some think a theory means that it isn’t proven yet so it can be disregarded, scientists view theories differently. Theories are explanations that are constantly being built upon and tested but they often represent the best explanations scientists currently have. A theory is not a law.

b. The second was about random data. Angier tells the story of a professor who runs this activity: at the beginning of class, half the students are told to flip a coin 100 times and record the results. The other half of the students are told to make up the results for 100 imaginary coin flips. The professor leaves the room while the students do this. When she returns, she examines the different recordings and most of the time is able to identify which were the real and imaginary results. How? Students don’t quite understand random data; usually after two consecutive heads or tails, they think they have to have the opposite result. In real random data, there can be runs of 6 of 7 heads or tails in a row even as the results tend to average out in the end.

Overall, I liked the content of the book even as I was often irritated with its delivery. For a social scientist, this was a profitable read as it helped me understand subjects far afield.

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