A Whirligig Tour of
The Beautiful Basics of Science
Nike Doukas, Reader
"So Werner Heisenberg is tootling along, and a cop pulls him over. The cop asks him, Do you know how fast you were going? Heisenberg replies: No, but I know exactly where I am."
Ms. Angier takes us through all the hard sciences: Astronomy, Physics, Geology, Chemistry, and Evolutionary and Molecular Biology. We were able to follow her lessons most of the way. Like when she quotes Cynthia Wolberger (Johns Hopkins), the cell, if magnified, looks, gorp, "exactly like snot ... gooey and viscous." Or from physicist Ramamurti Shankar, The charge of a particle is "an attitude ... it's like saying a person has charisma."
We did get buffaloed on probability: Angier tries to explain that if we have thirty or so people in the same room, the chances of two of them having the same birthday are relatively high. We didn't get it.
We did understand, albeit vaguely, why H20 looks like "Mickey Mouse's head" (the electrons are closer to each other around the nucleus). We were enthralled by the picture of the electrons of an atom, any atom, spinning so rapidly that it would look, to an observer, like a fog. (Our old physics teacher, Mr. Rosner, made us believe that their round very leisurely.)
We learned from Heisenberg that the "path" comes into existence only when we observe it, e. g., the very act of observing must change the observed (a lesson straight out of the teachings of Krishnamurti). And Angier tells us that DNA is "a long-winded masterpiece."
We learn that the prime component of space is space. Chemical bonding is compared to James Bond, and when you go to a wedding, you might as well mourn: one out of two marriages will end in divorce. (We also learned that one's chance of dying in an airplane accident is rare, the ratio of yes to no is 1:18,000.)
The chapter on Evolutionary biology is rather opinionated, for Angier takes it personally that 35% of Americans believe that Darwin's Theory of Evolution is merely a theory. And only 1/1000 of species' fossils have been found. On the Big Bang, she tries to convince us that it is "space that is moving, not the galaxies." A hummingbird egg --- ratio of parent to child --- is compared to a woman producing a thirty-pound baby, ow, and the secret of all life is, yes, "protein." You and I are in the business of creating and destroying millions of cells each day and each DNA genome has 3,000,000,000 bits of information.
The only thing that Angier doesn't seem to know is how to cook an egg. She authoritatively tells us that if you heat water and eggs to boiling, and then turn off the heat, you don't get hard-boiled eggs. We should get her out of the lab and into the kitchen, for Craig Clairborne and the Rombachers (and I) know the best way to make hard-boiled eggs is to put them in cold water in a pot, bring it up to a boil and instantly turn it off and stick on a heavy lid.
Skip the introduction --- it's redundant and unimportant. The reading by Nike Doukas on this Highbridge Audio disk is fine.--- Lolita Lark