I finally finished Natalie Angier's fine book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.
It took me some time, because I'd have to stop every couple of pages to digest the beautiful new insights I'd gained into the world around and within me. The chapters say it all: Thinking Scientifically, Probabilities, Calibration, Physics, Chemistry, Evolutionary Biology, Molecular Biology, Geology and Astronomy. If it sounds dry, let me be the first to tell you that it's anything but. You won't earn a PhD reading it, but you'll at least have a grasp of all these sciences.
The Canon is lovingly written, and full of puns. Explanations are simple and clear, yet elegant, possibly the most fun I've ever had reading something that was good for me.
Angier's mind is interesting. It deals with the rigid rules of science (she is, after all, a science writer for the New York Times), yet pushing at the boundaries of thought and language, and arriving at some metaphysical concepts that stop you (me, anyway) in your tracks.
For instance, after establishing that life is written in DNA, and that every cell passes life on through it, and that therefore we are all descended from the first cells, witnessed by the fact that we are all monophyletic: "Gunter Blobel, a cell biologist at Rockefeller University, Nobel laureate and fair grist for a limerick, sees the plain splendor in life's unbroken tenure. 'When you come right down to it, you are not twenty or thirty or forty years old,' he said. 'You are 3.5 billion years old. Some people say how terrible it is, this idea that we come from monkeys. Well, it's worse than that--or better, depending on your perspective. Wecome from cells from 3.5 billion years ago.'
"'There is this tremendous thread of life that goes back to when the firs cells arose, and that will continue on after any of us die as individuals' he said. 'It's continuous life and continuous cell division, and we are all an extension of that continuity. Reincarnation and similar themes are poetic representations of biological activity.'"
Or this from the chapter on astronomy after expaling the Big Bang and how the stars became huge fusion pits where smaller atoms like hydrogen and helium fused to make larger and heavier atoms while giving off heat and light. "'We are star stuff, a part of the cosmos' said Alex Filippenko.' I'm not just speaking generically or metaphorically here. The specific atoms in every cell of your body, my body, my son's body, the body of yoyr pet cat, were cooked up inside massive stars. To me, that is one of the most amazing conclusions in the history of science, and I want everybody to know about it.'" I love that stuff.
The most fascinating for me, because it's something I know very little about, was the chapter on astronomy. The explanations of the origins of the universe and the Big Bang almost made sense to me, but the formation of the starts, then their depletion, implosion, explosion...star, supernova, red giant and dense white dwarf.
The chaper on geology gives the same treatment to our planet, where it came from, how it seethes and breathes. How we get tsunamis and volcanoes and earthquakes, and why the Earth is not just one huge festering mass of open fiery pits and fissures.
Somehow, realizing how we are all atoms and cells, yet tiny specks on a tiny speck of a world in a non-descript solar-system of a middling galaxy...should, somehow make you feel insignificant, but it doesn't. It's just awesome.
What a wonderful book!
[Image of The Milky Way via Celestial Wonders]