Nov 10 2007

The Canon (A Whirlygig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science)

Published by at 11:48 am under Books

by Natalie Angier

An enthusiastic and well written overview of the current state of scientific knowledge without any equations or math. Only words and describing science with only words is not easy to do. The contents are necessarily selective and, per the subtitle, stick to basic concepts in various fields. Anyone could read this book and get some useful information out of its descriptions and a better understanding of the scope and methods of science.

The bulk of the book consists of Chapters on major scientific disciples: Physics, Chemistry, Evolutionary Biology, Molecular Biology, Geology, and Astronomy. Each makes an interesting read for a non specialist. Each provides some historical perspective on the field then moves a few main idea forward to current understanding.

The first three chapters are probably the best, or most in need of wider dissemination, They address what is science all about (i.e. “Scientific Method”), dealing with probabilities, and understanding ‘the scale of things’. All fit in well. I only wish the information in these chapters were more widely disseminated in our culture of simplified sound bytes and black and white opinions. Evolution is a theory, but a theory with a whole lot of evidence to support it. So it is highly likely, but not certain to be true, and any better theory would have to incorporate and explain the same evidence. On the hand, Something like the “String Theory” that physicists are developing is much more speculative with essentially no experimental evidence to support

Update from an email:

…..the word ‘theory has many meanings. People who say evolution is just a theory usually mean that it conflicts with their scripture, which they read as literally as they would read a scientific article. But in science, theory is the absolute best explanation you have of all of the data. For atomic theory, which I understand better than I do anything in physics, the data starts at Lavoisier and continues at least through Schroedinger. As always, theory is tentative and falsifiable, and it often needs be modified as our understanding grows. IMHO, evolutionary theory has the same sort of experimental validity as atomic theory, and is also tentative, falsifiable, and is growing rapidly as we understand genetics better. ……..

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