Sunday, May 13, 2007

Q&A Natalie Angier


First appeared in the Boston Globe.
www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/05/13/qa_with_natalie_angier

When I called New York Times science writer Natalie Angier to discuss her new book, "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science," I started by asking why, in the new work, is there little of the impatience with religion she has expressed in some of her essays? In "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist," for example, she complained that for nonbelievers like herself America's "current climate of religiosity can be stifling." In "My God Problem" she challenged scientists who felt similarly to step up: "Why is it," she demanded, "that most scientists avoid criticizing religion even as they decry the supernatural mind-set?"

For a worrisome interval after I put my question to her the phone line went silent. Then Angier slowly and deliberately replied: "I don't want to be known as a professional atheist. I don't want to have that be my full-time job. I've been a science writer my whole career, trying to elucidate the ideas of science. That's what I think makes life worth living." And in any case, she added, excess religiosity hardly explains why Americans are badly educated, not just about science, but, "go down the list -- about history, geography, literature, and philosophy."

In "The Canon," Angier agitates energetically for scientific literacy by highlighting key elements of scientific thinking, and by devoting chapters to, as she puts it, the "sciences generally awarded the preamble 'hard.'" The chapter on astronomy, for example, centers on the ineffable instant in which our universe blossomed out of the Big Bang. The section on molecular biology features a reprise of the high-speed commotion that prevails within a human cell even before it's time to split the DNA and divide.

And one finds that Angier's polemical edge, when she cares to display it, is as keen as ever: She writes, for example, that proponents of creationism and/or intelligent design strike her as subscribing to sadly "data-deprived ideologies."

IDEAS: What was your goal with "The Canon"?

ANGIER: In order to follow science, even in the newspapers, you have to have some confidence that you get the basic lay of the land, the geography of the scientific continent. I was trying to convey the basic ideas behind scientific thinking in a way people would understand.

IDEAS: Is there any special reason why Americans are poorly educated in science?

ANGIER: Our obsession with money plays into it. I think there is some truth to David Baltimore's observation that people used to making a lot of money don't get that interested in science, science being a sort of blue-collar profession that requires a lot of hands-on work and that is probably not going to make you rich.

IDEAS: Is writing easy for you?

ANGIER: No. Mostly it's a question of trying to quiet the dybbuks -- all the voices that tell you you're no good, you can't do it, every kind of criticism you can come up with. You're just trying to shut them up and let yourself go. I'd say I spend 50 percent of my time trying to get them out of the way. There are times when I do enjoy writing, but they are definitely in a minority.

IDEAS: Your writing has a lot of imagery and wordplay. Why?

ANGIER: When I write I go into an almost stream-of-consciousness way of looking at things. Do I think that way when I'm not writing? Sometimes. I try to understand things metabolically, by really digesting it, having it on a gut level, feeling it's inside you. I always try to get that for myself in grappling with various topics. When I write I try to get someone to go through that process with me, investigating the material from the inside out.

IDEAS: It feels as though the imagery allows you to assert your femininity as a science writer. Is that so?

ANGIER: No, it's not about a concern with femininity. It's about trying to feel some kind of passion. Don't you want to have a more heightened experience? Isn't that what you're always reaching for? It's what I'm always reaching for, in the way I look at the world and in the way I write. It's the same with my attempts at humor. The goal is to expand and rejoice as opposed to being an unhappy, angry person, which I am by nature. And when you can play around with language, it takes care of the fear, somehow.

IDEAS: When it comes to the situation of women in the sciences, do you see progress?

ANGIER: I've looked at the roster of the National Academy of Sciences to see what percentage of new members are women. In one piece I did for the Times, I saw signs of progress. But women have to continue to fight because you do have people like Larry Summers who comes along and casually says, Oh, here's a provocative question we shouldn't be afraid to ask. Why are there so few women at the genius level in science? Is it because they're inferior in science? Or is it maybe because they're not driven as much as men are? Anyway, let's talk about it.

This gets thrown out there, and it's one more thing we have to deal with. Do we really need Larry Summers shooting from the lip?

IDEAS: In writing about the Big Bang, you convey how amazing it was. But isn't it a cold kind of amazement? How are we supposed to feel about the origin of the universe? How is it supposed to matter in our lives?

ANGIER: Well, the fact that the Big Bang leads to intelligent life says something fundamental about the nature of matter and energy, I think, and its tendency to form complex patterns. I have this debate with my colleague Dennis Overbye, who argues that the universe is cold, the universe doesn't care.

IDEAS: You don't agree?

ANGIER: No. I think he's setting himself apart from the universe. I say to Dennis, do you believe your life is meaningless? He says, no. Do you believe you're part of the universe? He says, yes. So how can you say the universe has no meaning? You are meaning, you are part of it. I think it's legitimate to see the universe as wanting to know itself.

IDEAS: Are you saying that we were intended from the beginning?

ANGIER: Was the universe stewing on us for the last 13.4 billion years? No. But it's the outcome. We're here. It's a cold fact that we're here, and we are incorrigible meaning-generators.

Of course, I also believe, with no evidence, that there are many other civilizations like ours out there, so you could say the universe is filled with meaning. But did the universe intend that at the beginning? [laughs] As a meaning-generating character I can confidently say I don't think so.

But let's just say that we decide -- and it would be a great thing to decide -- that our purpose in life is to understand the universe. We've done a spectacular job so far, and have a lot more work to do. I really wish we were doing that instead of spending a trillion dollars on the Iraq war. I really wish we could figure out how to get to the point where most of us wish that. Will we get to that point? I don't know.

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