DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Time now for Science Out Of The Box.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: Two teenage girls are walking down the street. Girl A asks Girl B what her mother does for a living. Girl B replies, she works at the National Institutes of Health. She's a scientist. To which Girl A responds, huh? I hate science.
This little tale starts off Natalie Angier's new book, "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science." Angier is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about biology for the New York Times. She joins us now from her book tour in Toronto.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. NATALIE ANGIER (Author, "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science"): Thank you for having me.
ELLIOTT: Now your book seems like it is a response to this attitude that science is somehow uncool or something that only nerds can grasp. When does this science block kick in? You noticed it in these teenage girls.
Ms. ANGIER: Yes, I think what happens is somehow, at the beginning of puberty, there is this great winnowing, you know, all kids love science. All kids want to go to the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum and then something happens at puberty, where it becomes geeky and slightly gross, I guess, for a lot of people to be into science.
And I, for one, am mystified because I think that there's a lot of sensuality in science. And I think that if people just gave it a chance and really immersed themselves in some of the basic ideas of it, they would think that it was the sexiest thing alive.
ELLIOTT: You know, on our program here, we try to talk about science on Saturdays in a segment we call Science Out of the Box. So, obviously, when we saw that your book was coming out, it got our attention. You're calling your book "The Canon," and it's full of these really quite lovely and very easy to grasp explanations of each of the basic sciences. I'm wondering if you could share some of your book with us. Would you read for us?
Ms. ANGIER: Absolutely.
ELLIOTT: I'm thinking from your chapter on chemistry.
Ms. ANGIER: (Reading) As a rule, elements are more stable and less chemically reactive when they're in a bonded relationship than when they're out of one. For the same reason that married people are celebrated as society's source of levelheaded bourgeois dependability.
When you are married, your coupling capacity is more or less filled and you are considered taken. Not for nothing is the emblem of marriage the wedding ring, a closed circle, similarly for chemical partners in bondage. Their reactive parts are already busy and so are unavailable for other relations.
Molecular marriage does not, however, demand monogamy. Many elements have more than one reactive option, more than one electron consigned to life in a half-full orbit and thus in a position to conjugate covalently with another atom. Many elements, then, are polygamous by nature and each has its romantic limit, the maximum number of partners with which it can conjoin simultaneously.
ELLIOTT: Now if you had been my chemistry teacher in high school, I think I might have gotten it a little better.
Ms. ANGIER: Well, it is. I mean, I can't help but I, you know, I tend to anthropomorphize everything, including molecules, because everything is connected. Everything is alive. One of the things I try to do a lot of is to say what would be something be like if it were, you know, life sized.
You know, if you take something really small, like a cell, and blow it up to the size of a desk accessory, what would it look like? What would it feel like? And one of the scientists I talked to, she said, oh, basically, it would like a snot. And you know, all of a sudden, I had a complete picture in my mind. Oh, yeah, so it would be like this kind of big gobby thing and - that's what life is, though.
Life is squishy so I thought that that was a really nice way to say, ah, yes, that's it. You know, even a cell, even the building block of which we're built, is itself squishy.
ELLIOTT: Who are you hoping is going to pick this up and engage?
Ms. ANGIER: I see this is as, sort of, the post-scholastic set. You know, people who can't go back and redo their science education, but they maybe read science news in the newspaper, hear it on the radio. And they realize in the back of their mind that they're not quite sure what a molecule is. They're not quite sure how electricity works. They're not quite sure about any of these fundamental concepts that - on which all the news that they hear about is built and I also wanted to do it in a way that wasn't just terminology-based but ideas-based.
ELLIOTT: Now in your introduction, you also acknowledge that people can get through life oblivious to science and turn out okay. Why are you making that case? Why are you saying it's okay not to know these things?
Ms. ANGIER: The truth is that we can all get by without reading books, obviously, and you can get by without going to a play. You can get by without listening to music, you know, but what kind of life is it. So I think that I didn't want to make it seem like, oh, if you don't know about science, then you're going to be, you know, sort of, left behind, although there are some people who do believe that.
I talked to one woman, Lucy Jones, a geologist, who said she compares today to what it was in the beginning of the Renaissance when it was no longer an option to be illiterate. You know, most people had been and they left it up to the priest to do the reading and writing for them. And she said, all of a sudden, given the changing conditions economically, you couldn't afford not to read. She sees that same fork in the road now with scientific and technological sophistication, and she may be right.
It's not an option anymore for people to just shrug and say, I flunked high school chemistry and leave it at that. So you can either look at it from the beauty and the aesthetics, or you can say, oh, I better learn about this stuff, it's important.
ELLIOTT: Natalie Angier, I get the distinct impression, both from your book and from talking with you, that you appreciate the world around you much more because of your understanding of science. You talk about taking the time to notice the moon's phases or stopping to look at flowers blooming in springtime in a park. Are you making the point that science can make our lives better if we'd only give it a chance?
Ms. ANGIER: Absolutely. This is, I mean, if I have anything approaching a religion, it's that. And people always say, oh, you take the magic out of something if you analyze it. It's this old sort of Mr. Spock kind of a stereotype. But, in fact, it enriches your experience. When you really can understand it, then you have multiple levels on which to, sort of, seize it with all five senses.
There's no better way to get rid of anxiety than to get outside of your head and look at something really carefully like a bud that's now in bloom. I mean, look at all the parts of it and then look at it a couple of days later, and it's just an extraordinary experience if you really pay attention.
It's not just, oh, stop and smell the roses, it's really stop and see all the pieces coming out. And then, if you can, sort of, go back and try to understand what's happening, oh, it does wonders for getting rid of this kind of nattering in your head that, otherwise, interferes with understanding.
ELLIOTT: Natalie Angier's new book is "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science." Thank you for talking with us.
Ms. ANGIER: Thank you for having me.