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.

Behind the curtain of the Bozo show

The Bozo show was a long-time institution on Chicago television. The clown, televised on WGN, started on the air in 1960 and spread to stations around the country.

A new book commemorates the 50th anniversary of the show’s beginning. Among the stories in the book:

The Chicago show was so popular, Susan Harmon confirmed, that mothers would sign up for tickets the day their child was born, so six or seven years later, or even longer (at one time, there was a 10-year wait), their kid could attend the show.

Now that good evidence about the local impact of the show.

I attended the show when I was younger after seeing it for years on TV. (I have photographic evidence that I will not share here.) I’m pretty sure my mom got tickets from someone at work. I don’t remember much about the experience…but it was probably fun.

Quick Review: One Day

Over this past weekend, I read One Day by David Nicholls. This book is a love story told over a 20 year span. The twist: the author checks in with each member of the couple one day each year (the anniversary of their first meeting). The book has garnered a number of positive reviews.

My quick thoughts:

1. It is a story that would translate easily into a movie.

2. I don’t know if the characters are likable. They are young and idealistic when they first meet, not so much so later on after more life experiences. They are generally self-indulgent. Lots of drinking among both characters – a sign of their troubled lives or a reflection of contemporary life in the United Kingdom?

3. I like the idea of checking in once a year. Their lives gradually change and the story doesn’t get bogged down in extended scenes.

4. My wife and I disagreed about whether we enjoyed the book. She did not enjoy it, as “90% of the book involved the protagonists being miserable and/or drunk.” I think this book is like much adult fiction: it is more “realistic” or at least presents a strong contrast between miserable life alone and wonderful life together. Therefore, my wife finds reading a book like this unpleasant – she doesn’t want to spend that much time dwelling on the worse parts of life. Additionally, she felt that the author betrayed the reader at the end.  I, on the other hand, think misery is a common part of life and therefore should be explored in books, movies, music, etc. However, I do think much adult fiction today is melodramatic in its presentation of tough times.


Though it has the twist of checking in once a year, it seems like a fairly common story line. Two people meet and then experience difficulties over the years before meeting up again (though it is more complicated than this). This seems to be a kind of story our culture enjoys: love overcoming obstacles, even if these obstacles are self-imposed by the participants.

Overall: a good choice for light (not really fun but not exactly addressing deeper issues in life) yet engaging weekend-away reading. A modern classic? No.