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The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

3.66 of 5 stars 3.66  ·  rating details  ·  2,005 ratings  ·  398 reviews
From the Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author of Woman, a playful, passionate guide to the science all around us

With the singular intelligence and exuberance that made Woman an international sensation, Natalie Angier takes us on a whirligig tour of the scientific canon. She draws on conversations with hundreds of the world's top scientists and on her own work as a
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Hardcover, 304 pages
Published May 8th 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published 2007)
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Chelsea
Reading The Canon, A Chronology:

Chapter One: "Oh, interesting. I'd never thought about it that way before. Ha ha, clever." *giggles*

Chapter Two: "I had forgotten about that!" *feels superior for remembering the basics of probability* *chuckles at a drawn out word play*

Chapter Three: "Huh, that's neat." (100th bad pun.) *crickets*

Chapter Four: "I can't see the science for all of the terrible 'funny jokes'."

Chapter Five: *feels the need to assault someone*

Chapter Six: "YOU CANNOT POSSIBLY BE SERIO
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Joe
Aug 29, 2010 Joe rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: My enemies.
Recommended to Joe by: Jenny! Why?!
Shelves: physics
Annoying is the fairest word I could come up to describe The Canon after suffering through it for these past weeks. In fact, this is easily the most annoying book I've ever read, not because the science is poor or the topics contrived. In fact, the subject areas Angier chooses to describe are somewhat intuitive and logically ordered (for the most part).

She just has this writing style that, well... it just makes me want to scream.

"Peppers" isn't even the appropriate word. She sort of... "vomits
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Matthew
I gave up on this one after about 100 pages. I hate not finishing books, but this one was so irritating it started to make me angry. Too often it seemed like the book was less about science than about showcasing Angier's insufferable cleverness. She couldn't seem to decide whether she wanted to be playfully incomprehensible in a Finnegan's Wakean way, or drolly incisive in a kind of Popish verse. The result was a bastard child caught somewhere between the two that had an annoying sing-song quali ...more
Woodge
Feb 24, 2013 Woodge rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: learners
Shelves: science
Science is cool. I didn't think so back in high school but I like to think I've matured since then. Back then I evaded chemistry by taking an earth science course (Rocks for Jocks). Seems a shame because now I find that stuff very interesting. What Ms. Angier so ably and entertainingly covers in this slim -- under 300 pages -- volume is the scientific method, probabilities, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy. You don't have to be a Ph.D. to understand it either. I only wish some ...more
Jason Pettus
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally here.)

The more I learn about the history of science, the more I realize why it has such a precarious, semi-mystical reputation with so much of the general public by now; because when the modern "scientific process" was first formed in the 1600s, the first few generations of "scientists" were starting almost
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Jessica
The goal of this book is to recapture science from the nerdy margins of society. Angier does this by bimboizing everything, referring to David Trump's toupee as a force of nature and with a giddy, Tourettes-like prose (at the end of one paragraph anecdote involving the Bronx: "Gee, thonx, said the Bronx. I feel richer already. Do you mind if I give a Bronx cheer?")

If this is the only way to popularize science, let's leave it unpopular.
Kaylee
Perhaps I hated this book because I have a science background. Perhaps I despised being talked to like a second grader because I actually know how to "think scientifically". And perhaps I loathed every second of my multiple tries at reading this because I'm no fun.

But really, science background or not, this book is written like a kids book -- except with "witty" phrases every damn sentence instead of illustrations. I might not have had as much of a problem with it had I felt like she intended to
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Marie desJardins
I was really looking forward to reading this book, which purports to be a layperson's introduction to all things beautiful in science. But I can't imagine any layperson ever actually reading it. It's unbelievably long and dull -- the first chapter is 17 small-type pages about how people should like science more than they do, and makes the same points over and over again. The second chapter is 29 small-type pages about how science is cool. But it just meanders from point to point, with no particu ...more
Dale
The Canon is exactly what its subtitle says: a tour of the basics of science. Natalie Angier is a science writer; that is, a writer who is a knowledgeable observer of science and who is able to get scientists to explain things in terms the rest of us might understand. Her writing style is very light, loaded with enthusiasm, and a bit chatty at times. At first I found the chattiness to be slightly off-putting, but when I got to the chapters on material that I didn't know much about (molecular bio ...more
Genia Lukin
You know the joke that goes "sip, don't gulp"?

It's about this book.

It's only possible to read it without annoyance in very, very small pieces. I found myself reading a half a chapter - a chapter at most - every day, but no more. Go further, and the alcoholic intoxication induced by severe overdose of puns and jokes gave me vertigo.

It's not that the jokes are all bad; no, some of them are moderately clever, many of them made me at least smile. I am quite benevolent towards puns. But when the freq
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Evelyn
Science is beautiful.

Me reading this book was like a fish going to a lecture about why water is important. In other words, Angier is preaching to the converted. But, even if I didn't already consider science fascinating and amazing and completely utterly awesome, I'd soon come around to that point of view. The chapter on physics made my day; the chemistry chapter would have made last year's science class much more interesting; the astronomy chapter was a tad belabored, though no amount of repeti
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Aimee
I am reading this book slowly. It has some great ideas and I love the premise of laying out in simple, brief terms the basic tenets of science, but the writing style drives me crazy, and not in a good way.

She uses similes and "cleverly" written conversational comments and she doesn't stop, there are 1-5 on every single page. These phrases have no value, they don't help illustrate or clarify a concept; they just comes across as oh-so-clever. That's okay once in a while, and I understand the desir
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Lisa
Natalie Angier writes wonderful columns which frequently appear in the New York Times. While her style can become a bit draining after a while, it is easy to see how much she loves science. And, perhaps for that reason alone, I enjoyed this book. I should have read this book only one chapter at a time. It would have been more enjoyable that way.
Dennis Mitton
Angier has written a useful and expansive book that just does not carry me. I don’t argue – much – with the content: she aptly explains the foundations of modern science from math to physics to biology and things in between. She offers a broad view with a thousand rabbit trails to explore. But as much as I enjoyed the book, her writing simply wears me out. One reviewer calls the book ‘exuberant’: that’s an understatement. She writes with almost religious wonder. Her wide eyed descriptions lead t ...more
Kate
The subtitle" A whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science, should have been my first clue, but i translated whirligig as more whirlwind and i bought the book. I assumed we would dash through the basic concepts of science, and through the race it would be a fun read for a topic I long to get my hands into again. But whirligig is actually a more accurate term for the spinning, circular prose, cliched phrases, lists of adjectives, and nonsensical metaphors plucked from thin air without both ...more
Kaitlyn Dennis
Angier is thorough (a lot more so than I expected going into this) and accessible, and while some chapters covered more familiar ground than others, I felt I got something from each of them. Even in the driest sections, the conversational tone was intact and my interest was held. There are a lot of little literary/cultural winks thrown in with the substantive material, some working better than others. For some reason, the only one explained with a footnote was the reference to Rosencrantz & ...more
Joanne
This book just annoyed me. I didn't get far, what with the small font and lots of analogies and metaphors that I either didn't understand or were completely unnecessary and actually detrimental to anyone who seriously just picked up this book to get a basic understanding of science.

The entire idea of the book is to teach science and yet I found myself floundering in a rant about how more people should just learn science and go into science and people really need to start valuing science and for
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Starry
I really enjoyed this book. The author manages to be entertaining, informative, and at times even lyrical as she gives an overview of the basics in the basic sciences (chemistry, physics, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, geology, astronomy). Sounds dry but she keeps it moving along and funny.

I was especially curious about her writing on molecular biology (I have a PhD in this field and get frustrated with poorly written newspaper articles on mol.bio. research advances). She did a nice j
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Ryan
My compulsion with finishing a text once I've started it us the only reason I made it to the final page of The Canon. Angier gets a C for effort - many interesting topics are considered and there were a number of thought-provoking passages. Two things made The Canon a tough read for me. First, Angier cannot go more than two paragraphs without throwing in some want-to-be-clever non sequitur. I believe Angier was trying to make the book user-friendly for the science-phobes, but these efforts fell ...more
Matthew
SO bad! In so many ways! The prose is just too annoying; the author seems to think her topic, which she defensively insists is so fascinating, is actually quite boring. At least that's the only explanation I could see for her insistence on inane one-liners and hip, alliterative inside jokes.

Her command of science is also a bit off. She makes many inaccurate statements and gives misleading examples. She is inordinately defensive over the question of evolution vs creation. In fact, it seems to be
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Frank Jude
May 25, 2009 Frank Jude rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: All those interested in science, even if, and especially if, they are a bit scared by it!
Shelves: general-science
Go to the top scientists in the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, geology and astronomy and ask them what principles (not data or factoids) are central to their discipline and what they wish the general public knew and understood and then write a readable, enjoyable book about it. That's what top science writer, Natalie Angier did and the results are fabulous.

If you are a science phile or phobe, this one is for you! At times Angier's wit gets the best of her. It's almost like she feels she
...more
Julia
I've always wished that I'd studied chemistry in high school, because I didn't know even the most basic concepts from the field. Thanks to the author's entertaining explanations, I now feel like I have a much better understanding of how atoms stick together to form molecules (using different bonds like covalent and hydrogen bonds!) and how molecules stick together to form elements (essentially, it's all about electromagnetic attraction, it seems). The book covers much more than just chemistry, h ...more
Shirley
My inner science nerd felt confused (the chapter on physics), nostalgic (molecular/cell biology), and downright fascinated and amazed (geology and astronomy) (but never bored) as I traversed through the whirligig tour. This book was great learning/review on the beautiful basics of science bundled with a rather random, charming, and accessible writing style. Although she apparently interviewed hundreds of eminent scientists for this book, Angier's appreciation of what the average layperson would ...more
Leslie
Okay, so I sort of cheated--I listened to the audio version of this marvelous book because I just can't read everything. It literally took me all winter, during my morning commutes--and it took that long because I kept going back over topics in the chapter on physics--but I finished just as the season ended. The presentation of the material, as well as the way in which it was read, was spirited and wonderful so if I didn't grasp every bit of the book it was not the fault of the author or reader. ...more
Heather Browning
I liked this more than I thought I might, given the reviews. The writing style was occasionally annoying but quite readable and often entertaining. My real issue was the lack of structure - the chapters seemed to wind through an unmarked path and the writing style meant this journey took a lot longer than perhaps it needed to. As someone familiar with science, it wasn't an issue, I could provide my own signposts, but I think it would be a major barrier to someone hoping to learn. Overall, I can' ...more
Emily
Natalie, voiced by the wonderful Nike Doukas, explains some of the "beautiful basics of science" in such a way that they are easy to understand but still interesting to somebody who didn't get a BS but did well at an engineering school. The writing is wry, clever, beautiful; the scientific ideas are sound and deliciously linked to their metaphors in smaller facets of their lives; and Angier pulls no punches when she talks about facts that might make some fundamentalist members of our population ...more
Joanna
I finally buckled down and finished this book. I certainly appreciated getting a review of all of all of these topics and concepts learned (or glossed over) throughout school. It was a great refresher course. However, in her effort to make is "accessible" to the masses, she ends up going over the top, being annoyingly condescending and talking down to the reader. It is not something to be read on consecutive nights of reading, but it is a great reminder of basic scientific principles that it is ...more
Al
Feb 08, 2009 Al rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Al by: asolomo@emory.edu
Although the froth is voluminous, the beer beneath is definitely worth sampling. Recommended for those who would enjoy a refresher course on the basics of the "hard sciences" long forgotten from high school. The chapter on scientific thinking and the discussion of evolution v. creationism/intelligent design are my favorites. Although I am not a believer in the latter, I might convert so I can utter the term "irreducible complexity" with abandon!
Cara
This book is ok.

Hard to think of any other way to describe it. The science is accurate and well-explained, though not any more than any other pop-sci book. It covers a broad range of scientific topics, which is nice. Sometimes it feels like it's trying too hard. I could have used a lot less of the "evolution is real!" chapter, for example. I don't mind when science writing is geared towards people who don't understand science, but I find it annoying when it is aimed towards people who don't actu
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Barbara
This book presents me with a problem. I am re-reading a copy which I seem to have read before. I recollect nothing of it yet the pages look well-thumbed. Since I kept the book on my shelves I presume I thought it good enough to re-read.

This time I found that I am not the audience for Natalie Angier's book. It seems to be aimed at sophisticated, well-read, wise-cracking humanities graduates who need powerful persuasion to lower their sights sufficiently to take an interest in science.

I am a hum
...more
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Natalie Angier is a nonfiction writer and a science journalist for The New York Times.
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