Richard Lea reviews Natalie Angier’s new book in the Times Literary Supplement:
The genre of popular-science writing has something of the paradoxical about it, owing its very existence to science’s lack of popularity at school and its peripheral role in our cultural life. In a world where an American President can claim that the “verdict is still out” on evolution, where half of the population of the European Union has no idea that an electron is smaller than an atom, and where only 7 per cent of English teenagers between the ages of thirteen and seventeen think science is “cool”, science’s unpopularity is matched only by its importance in shaping our lives.
It is a situation of which Natalie Angier, the author of this popular-science primer, The Canon, is keenly aware. After a quarter of a century working as a science writer, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for a series of features in the New York Times, when people call science “bo-o-oring” she takes it personally. But how to interest a society as indifferent to scientific ideas as it is hungry for their technological results? Dispensing rapidly with the usual arguments for greater public understanding of science, Angier makes a direct appeal to intellectual enjoyment, which sets the tone for the whole of her whirligig tour.
“Of course you should know about science, for the same reason that Dr Seuss counsels his readers to sing with a Ying or play Ring the Gack: These things are fun, and fun is good.” With fun as her watchword, armed with interviews of “hundreds” of scientists, Angier sets off in pursuit of everything “nonspecialist nonchildren” should know about science, what she calls the “beautiful basics”.