Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Canon: a whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science

Angiers has taken every big idea of science and given it a chapter; most of the essentials are explained in a way that doesn't leave non-science people behind. From calibrations to chemistry to geology, she is able to cover the basics of a science education on one book.
I have to admit that I learned a lot. But I learned a lot in spite of Angiers' flowery prose, with its run-on sentences and out-there metaphors. While some of the strange comparisons were appropriate, others were too obscure or just too distracting.
In truth, sodium chloride, magnesium bromide, calcium chloride and the like are not molecules but ionic compounds, and though the hero here is still a bond, Sean Connery it is not. The ionic bond that brings us condiments, pebbles, eggshells, Alka-Seltzer, many household cleaning products, and a surprising selection of psychiatric drugs, is stiffer and more strait-laced than a covalent bond, less pliable, more predictable. A brick, a rock, the salt of the earth. An ionic bond is Roger Moore.
Weird, huh? It's like you have to wrap your mind around what people use these substances for (table salt, rocks, etc.), then what the difference is between the two kinds of bonds, and then she throws in the sneaky metaphor about James Bond. It all works, but it's too much, at least for me...

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