Natalie Angier – The Canon

June 29, 2007

Natalie Anger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist for the New York Times. Born in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, she studied physics and English at Barnard College, where she graduated with high honors in 1978. From 1980 to 1984, Angier wrote about biology for Discover Magazine. She also worked as a science writer for Time Magazine. She is the recipient of a number of honors for her writing on science, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) prize for excellence in science journalism and the Lewis Thomas award for distinguished writing in the life sciences. The author of a number of critically accliamed books, her most recent is The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, she explores the reasons why everyone should work to become scientifically literate. She also details specific reasons why chemistry, evolutionary biology, astronomy and other fields should interest the non-scientist public. Other topics discussed include atheism and science, and the future of science writing.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 25, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, I want to invite you to get involved with the Center for Inquiry in your city. There are centers for inquiry all over North America and around the world. New centers are being founded right now. If you’d like to get involved with this, go to Center for inquiry dot net and get the details about the center in your neck of the woods. Now, before Natalie Angier, here’s a quick word from our sponsor. 

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I’m pleased to be joined on this week’s point of inquiry by Natalie Angier, the celebrated science journalist for The New York Times. She’s Pulitzer Prize winning. And she’s written about biology for Discover magazine. She’s worked as a science writer for Time magazine. She joins me on the show this week to talk about her new critically acclaimed book, The Canon A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Natalie Angier. 

Well, thank you for having me. 

Natalie, let’s start off by talking about something we address here on the show quite a bit. And that’s the topic of Athie ism. Why in this new book do you seem to be kind of backing away from the straight and Athie ism of some of your other writing? I mean, if there was ever time to write a pro science and skeptical of religion book, it would be now with all these big sellers against the idea of God. But but you don’t really treat the topic that much in this book. 

Well, first of all, I guess I don’t see myself as a Bridon Davis. I try to be a humorous atheist. 

Personally, I didn’t want to become a professional atheist. I don’t really see that as a very fruitful way to spend one’s life and career. Just because there’s not much to say about it after a certain point. Whereas with science, there’s a lot to say about it. There’s an infinite number of things to say about there’s an infinite number of things to discover. And that seems to me to be a lot more exciting. So while it is true that I am an atheist and I think that sometimes getting stuck on religion gets in the way of a lot of things that I’m interested in, I don’t want this to be a book about whether or not God exists, because that’s ultimately not a question anybody’s going to answer. And I don’t really want to have that become the only question people are talking about now. 

So your book, The Canon, it’s really a beautiful argument for scientific literacy. That’s another topic we get to a lot here on the show, scientific literacy. So here’s the big question. Aside from learning science, because it advantages us economically and also aside from learning science, because it keeps us informed as citizens, there are a lot of big questions we face as voters that have to do with the science public policy interface like global warming, stem cell research. The big question that I want you to answer is why should we learn science aside from those two kinds of reasons? I mean, are we really supposed to be scientifically literate just because it’s good for us? 

One of the approaches I take whenever I write anything is to think about what I have to say. I mean, we’re all kind of stuck in our own skulls. And I say, well, what interests me and what interests me is learning about science for its own sake. I mean, I see it as this huge human enterprise. Most people are really only dimly aware of it at all. 

And that seems to me a kind of a tragedy because there’s just a lot of cool ideas out there that are now really, I think, open for discussion and on a broader plane. Everybody can participate in this glorious adventure of under the universe on its own terms. And so I don’t want to get stuck on saying, well, it’s good for you, because then it makes it sound, first of all, like it’s a chore like saying which everybody should do. But. And in fact, I even talk about flossing in one chapter is something that everybody should do for a very good scientific reason. But mostly I got interested in science when I did and decided to become a science writer because of the beauty of it and because there’s just so much the hair. I mean, one of the things that keeps me going is every time I kind of get depressed sometimes about science, I have to admit I get depressed about having to talk to scientists. They can be primadonnas. They can be a little hard to deal with. And like, you know, I think of it as being like Paris. You know, it’s a great city, but there are the Parisians. And so there are many times that I think I don’t want to do it anymore. And then some really cool new paper will come out and just I’ll realize. But, you know, it’s just there’s so much going on. And I think people should have a better appreciation for that just because how much out there makes you sort of glad to be alive? It does. 

So you’re a science writer. You’re a booster for science because it’s cool. It kind of turns you on. You’re not proposing everybody learn science because it’s good for them or make some money or make them better voters. But it is true that most Americans are scientifically literate. They say that fewer than seven percent, seven, not 70 percent of Americans are scientifically literate. Most graduating college students don’t know the difference between an atom and a molecule. Most Americans believe in an intelligent designer, not Darwin’s theory of evolution. Doesn’t. Matter that there’s such a high level of illiteracy, other than you saying science is beautiful, people should learn science, a lot of musicians say, oh, everyone should appreciate, you know, the local symphony because it’s interesting to them. But you don’t really need to know science to live a happy, fulfilled life. When I’m making coffee in the morning, I don’t need to know astronomy to do so. 

This is true. You don’t need to know astronomy to do so. But I think that you could say that about anything and maybe, you know, you compare to a local symphony. But what if we were just talk about all of music? Well, you never do have to listen to music. But what an impoverished life you would live if you were never able to listen to or never chose to or didn’t know about music or art or anything, any of these. And the thing about science is that it is this huge human enterprise that has somehow gotten kind of ghettoized and people don’t even think about it in the same way that they may encounter all these other professions all the time. And you kind of wonder, well, jeez, you know, I mean, there are actually tens of thousands of working scientists out there, but most people never run into him. You don’t meet him at a cocktail party. You don’t know their what they do. You don’t know anything about them. There are no TV shows about them or very few. I mean, I guess you could talk about the forensic science shows as being somewhat about science. But I do think that, first of all, people have a natural interest in science when they’re young. This is something that we all know, because if you go to a science museum of Natural History Museum, places alive with kids, kids excited, kids running around, kids wanting to understand, kids wanting to, you know, experiment with the world, and they like it for the sake of itself. 

You know, it’s science for science’s sake. Like some people talk about art for art’s sake. They’re not learning science to be better citizens or to make more money. It’s fun. 

Exactly. It is fun. And in the same way that we kind of expect that all kids are going to draw. And then at some point, OK, maybe you say, well, you’re not going to be a professional artist, but you can appreciate art as an adult and maybe you’re not going to be a scientist, but you can appreciate science because when you do appreciate it, it is like appreciating art or music. 

It really does enrich your life. Now, there are some people I quote Lucy Jones, a geologist at Cal Tech, who thinks that people have to become scientifically literate today. She sees us as being at a turning point like the Renaissance when everybody had to learn to read or you weren’t going to survive economically. And she says scientific literacy today is being the equivalent of that. 

She may be right, but that’s not your argument that. 

Well, it’s not my argument because I am kind of directing my plea to adults. And I think that she’s more concerned with people sort of going through the educational system now. And I’m thinking, well, what about when you’re past that point? So we have kind of two different missions in mind. I don’t think that at this point, if you’re somebody who say anywhere from 28 on up and, you know, whether or not you learn science probably isn’t going to affect your career, although it could. But mostly most likely it won’t. So then I see it more as being something for the intellectual and esthetic joys of of understanding the world. 

It helps you live a fuller life. At least that’s that’s the argument. What strikes me is when you’re talking about the beauty of science, you really echo some of the Nobel Prize winners we’ve had on the show who talk about the beauty of science. They don’t talk about the utility of science or why it’s good for you, you know, like taking medicine. They say it’s beautiful, like, you know, a sunset is beautiful or a mathematical equation they say can be beautiful or the structure of a crystal can be beautiful. You look at it with the same appreciation that you look at other beautiful things. 

Yes, it is true. And I one of the things I envy about scientists is that they retain that feeling about their work and they retain it through some pretty forbidding circumstances. They know I’ve been in labs with with scientists at 3:00 in the morning and I’m really dog tired and they’re still enthusiastic about their results. I mean, they’re just like, oh, this is great. And they love what they do in a way that very few other professions, I think, can say. Although, you know, I think anybody, when they get into something can think it’s very exciting, but they love it. Even though they’re working ridiculous hours, they’re not mostly not appreciated because let’s face it, who knows scientists if you ask anybody on the street to name a scientist. What are they going to say? 

They’re going to say Al Gore, I mean, they don’t really know the names of any living scientists, so they’re very up your profession and they’re not terribly highly paid, but they have this love of it that just doesn’t quit. And that’s why, you know, I’m telling my daughter and every person I know still in school. I consider a career in science because scientists are happy people. 

They’re passionate about the beauty. Natalie, let’s talk about some specific fields of science you treat in the book. Throughout the book, you really give us a feel for the passion these scientists have in their respective fields. And you’re giving a tour of these beautiful basics evolutionary biology, physics, geology, astronomy, few others in every one of these fields, you introduce your reader to some really cool, some really interesting things happening in the science. So let’s look at chemistry first. Chemistry. Maybe this is a confession. It was my least favorite class in high school. You say that that’s not really because of the subject matter, but more likely, it has to do with the way we teach chemistry in our society. 

One of the things I found about virtually all chemists that I interviewed is they’re very defensive because they do feel unappreciated. They feel that all sciences, they’re the ones that are most disliked. And then, you know, everybody claims they long Thai school chemistry. It’s almost a universal kind of claim. And they also feel unappreciated by other scientists and biologists to kind of ignore them so they they can get a little bit defensive. But they also feel that they are more than most scientists. They are artists because they are creating things. Mostly what chemists are doing is trying to create new molecules or variants on existing molecules to have new properties. So, for example, to have, you know, screens or computers, that you really can just roll up like a piece of paper and take with you or have everything be self-cleaning or, you know, coming up with all sorts of biodegradable. This is, of course, a big push right now with environmentalism taking off to come up with with grocery bags that will biodegrade under the kinds of conditions you want to, but not the ones where you don’t work, for example, walking home from the grocery store. So they are always inventing these new molecules. And so one of the things I feel is important is for people to have a basic understanding of what molecules are going really back to the basics. They’re saying, OK, here’s what molecules are. Here’s how they interact. Here’s why they have the properties. They do so that there’s only a few basic ideas you have to know and then you can follow a lot more easily what’s going on in frog design or in any kind of any kind of development in applied science, which uses chemistry. And that’s the theme I try to strike throughout the book, is that if you master a few basic concepts, it’s much easier to follow the news if you know what a cell is and a surprising number of people don’t know what a cell is or why were made of them. If you know what that is, you can follow the stem cell debate, you know, to understand what atoms are, to understand some of the basic ideas of astronomy or geology. 

Right. Earlier on, when we were talking about those two reasons people might learn science, either kind of the civics reason makes you a better citizen or the economic advantage reason. Well, a third and one that you kind of touch on in this book is, you know, it just makes you kind of gives you a better grasp on the world. You need to know science, since it’s central to our understanding of the universe. Educated people know science just like they know music or art or everything else. You’re gonna read the paper. You want to know a little science, you can follow along. 

Yes. And the problem with most news articles, and I know this because as somebody who writes them, is that very often, you know, you are writing about the news. And for most people, all science is news so that they may not really get the background. But you don’t have room in the story. You don’t have the luxury to say, well, here’s everything you should know so that you can understand why this is an important advance. So that’s why I think if you if you do have those basics, that foundation of the basics, it does make getting through just daily life. I think easier. I know that in the course of my career as covering science for more than a quarter of a century now, you know, I’ve kind of homed in on those basic things from each field and try to understand, here’s what I should know about these disciplines, because obviously nobody can really be versed in everything. So to to just have a. A working familiarity with basic principles of every discipline. It does seem to make life a lot easier. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of the Canon a Whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science through our website point of inquiry dot org. Natalie, you devote a chapter in the book to geology as a field of science. But as with the other chapters, you’re not just kind of teaching the science. You’re not saying here’s a new discovery, you’re making a case instead. Why? Learning it is interesting. It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s beautiful. So tell me, why is geology interesting? 

Well, when you think about it, one of the things that’s really fascinating about what’s going on with the Earth and why the Earth is such a dynamic planet and why the Earth is in a very real sense, alive and different from the other planets of the solar system. We are this very, very hot, hot ball in frigid space. And what happens is that that heat from the inside is trying to get out. And that causes everything we see that causes the earthquakes and the volcanoes and the movement of the plates around the globe slowly. It’s this idea of heat trying to escape. Now, why do we have so much heat? Most of the heat in the center of the earth is actually trapped there from the days of formation of the solar system. And because of our big size relative for a rocky planet and the fact it is rocky, it hasn’t been able to lose that heat for heat is kind of stuck in there and it’s constantly trying to figure out new ways to get out. And so that really explains the whole evolution of our of our planet. Whereas with with Mars being smaller, it’s lost most of its teeth. And so now it’s kind of a dead planet. So if you think of this difference of this all this hot ball in cold space and it’s always trying to shake off the heat, it’s making everything move as it does that. And all of that movement gives rise to opportunity. So just these basic ideas of trying to understand why the planet is the way it is. I just think it’s kind of neat to see one of the things I really like or I just like ideas. I like cool ideas. Now, there are many ways to tell a story. You can tell a story through through people or through history, like the history of science or through scientists, you know, kind of do it as a kind of a part of a biography like the Einstein book. But to me, what what’s exciting and what I think of those kind of characters in my own life or are ideas and and so that’s what I try to give voice to in the book, these great ideas of science that are interesting in their own right. 

You learn about them and you say, wow, that’s cool. One of these fields that you treat to kind of give the reader the wow, it’s cool moment is astronomy. And everyone in our society seems to get turned on a little by astronomy, by the stars. Carl Sagan had is incredibly popular Cosmos series. And now Neil deGrasse Tyson is gaining a larger audience with his popular astronomy shows on TV. Why does astronomy grab people more than a lot of the other sciences, do you think? 

Know it’s true because astronomers I talked to all admitted that they have it really easy when it comes to public appreciation. 

And a quick, funny anecdote. One of the scientists they interviewed was she actually she’s an astrophysicist. And so she does a lot of particle physics. 

But in the context of trying to understand the early universe and she says when she’s on an airplane and she’s sitting next to some somebody, and if she’s not in a mood to talk and the person asks her what she does for a living and she’ll say, I’m a particle physicist, but if she is in the mood to talk, she’ll say, I’m an astronomer. And then she’ll get all sorts of questions. So there is a public appreciation. I think it’s partly because we can look up at night. I mean, you look up at night and it’s so it’s so mind boggling. 

It’s so I mean, you can’t help but be excited by what you see, because there are all these lights out there. You want to know what they are. Now, I think that maybe people who were born and raised in the city who never get out have a harder time appreciating it. But if you just see a night sky and good conditions once changes you so radically and we see them as children and it’s just most it seems like magic. You see a shooting star. It’s magic. And in fact, a lot of astronomy is magic. When you think that one of the ideas about astronomy, a very simple idea, but it’s kind of amazing is that everything that astronomers have learned about the universe, they’ve learned by studying light, by studying the light rays come from these distant objects. They can’t sort of pick up and put in the lab and do experiments with the objects of their interests. They have to take information that comes to them. These light beings have stories to tell. So even though we associate astronomy with the night, it’s still ultimately about light. And so that’s kind of an amazing idea. And the fact that we figured out from studying these light rays, we have figured out so much about what’s out there. How far away things are when the universe began. And, you know, the big bang. It’s it’s extraordinary just by studying different beams of light. 

Most people think the biggest question we can ask is, is there a God? But you say the biggest question that we can ask is, are we alone? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? And you actually think the odds are kind of good? 

Virtually every astronomer that I interview thinks that there is life out there. In fact, they’re certain of it. And John Bacall’s wonderful astronomer at Princeton who unfortunately died recently. He said that it was the one thing of which he has no absolutely no evidence, but on which he would take all the money he has. And that is that there is life elsewhere that the universe teams with life. Now, the real question that comes up is, is it intelligent? 

Is it intelligent? Is it the kind of life that we might be able to communicate with someday? And even there, I think that the odds are pretty good, although as some scientists have pointed out, it could be that there may not be any more than one intelligent, advanced civilization in any galaxy at a given time just because of the possible short life span of these intelligent, advanced civilizations like our own, that if we are so, don’t laugh. If we manage to screw things up and self-destruct within a few thousand years, which might be the natural progression of intelligent life, it could very well be. 

And so then the question becomes, well, let’s say there’s only one for Galaxy. Well, this still leaves us with billions of galaxies in the universe. But of course, then the distances between them becomes so forbidding that it’s quite possible, sadly, that will never communicate with another civilization. I did talk to one guy recently said Show Stack, who’s at the SETTI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Foundation, and they’re looking for signs from other civilizations. And he actually thinks that the odds are good that not only that there is other intelligent life in our galaxy, but that the odds are such that we could very well hear from them in the next 10 to 20 years. So that’s that’s the good news. Bad news is that he doesn’t necessarily think it will be benign, friendly life that comes here. So, you know, who knows? 

Maybe it might be a cosmic imperialist just looking for new land to harvest or something. But now we’re now we’re getting into sci fi scenarios. Let me ask you about intelligent life elsewhere in the universe if if we do find it. Do you think it’s going to overturn everything? You think it’s gonna just shake the foundations of modern society? You know, the conspiracy theorists say that the government already found proof of intelligent life and is keeping it from the masses because of what it will do to closely held belief systems out there. 

Yes, well, of that idea. 

I think there is. I think, quite frankly, I think it’s silly and there’s no evidence for it and there’s no evidence for the belief that it will overturn everything or no, there’s no evidence that it’s been here and that there’s been some conspiracy to repress knowledge of it. 


Right. Sir, Seth Shostak says, look, our government is so bad at keeping secrets. If they actually found intelligent life, it would leak out. We’d know about it. 

Yes. And he he’s given the anecdote of how even when they found, you know, the slightest possible sign of anything and they were not going to release any information till we had further dig this, you know, it immediately got out. 

My colleague at the Times and, you know, there’s just no way it would be kept down. I do think if we had contact with another civilization. Oh, boy. I just I think it would be it would be the most important event in our history. And I I don’t know what it would be like, but it would be it would it be shattering, right. 

It’d be big. It’d be big. 

Natalie, let’s talk about the big kahuna, evolutionary biology. We touched on your Athie ism right at the beginning of our conversation. Do you think that you have to teach the atheistic implications of evolution in order to teach it effectively? Your book is not really about science education, just about scientific literacy. But if you’re teaching someone about evolution, you think you also have to tease out the atheistic, you know, implications. 

I interviewed enough scientists who claim to be who are going to be who are based for devout Christians of one type or another and Jews. 

And Francis called. 

For instance, Francis Collins, for instance, or Kenneth Miller, Brown University. Smart guy, really like him. He’s he’s a practicing Catholic. So there are enough of them out there who believe that you can that you can compartmentalize and not have them interfere with each other at all. 

But every one of those that you interviewed were believers who said, you know, look, Natalie, there’s not really strong arguments for why I believe what I believe. I’m taking it on faith. When I do science, I look at evidence when I do faith. I, you know, have faith. 

Yes. So if they think that that’s true, that they when they do science, they follow all of the conventions of science and they do experiments and they come up with competing hypotheses and they do. They try to prove their hypotheses wrong and they abide by the data when they are faithful, then it is it is almost like being in laws or some other experience that I think really can just possess you. Now, people certainly are trying to understand the the biochemical basis of the feeling of loss, the evolutionary reasons for the feeling of love. You can you can understand all of that in in that sense. But ultimately, the feeling of love is not something that, you know, it’s just it is something beyond what seems like a reason Jim Underdown. 

Right. You could explain love, but explaining it doesn’t explain it away. 


We still have love when you’re in love. I mean, you’re still in the throes of it. 

Yes. And I think it’s a wonderful I you know, I can sort of see the evolutionary reasons why I love my daughter so much and why I would die for her. I can I can feel that from a kind of a Darwinian perspective, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s there. And I see that as a gift. This is a gift that I have my see my incredible bond to her. So I don’t think that you have to forgo your face to to appreciate evolution. And I think it’s unfortunate that it’s been this ongoing argument because it just seems so. What are you going to do about it? Evidence for evolution is all around. There’s no there’s no getting away from it. So unless you want to be in this kind of deep denial, why fight it? 

So rather than fight it, be religious if you’re going to be, but conform your religion to Darwin’s theory of evolution. That’s that’s what these scientists who are also religious that you’ve talked to. That’s what they do. 

Yes. They don’t see that if they understand how life has evolved to give us the biodiversity that we see around us. Now, if evolutionary process explain that, then that’s what that’s reality. But. OK. I mean, if you want to, you could say this is the this is the best system that God could put together, because let’s face it, I mean, it works really well. And given this incredible amount of diversity, it gives us beauty. It gives us just things that you can’t believe are out there. And there they are. So obviously, the system is a very rich, inventive, creative force Jim Underdown. 

Right. But the theory of evolution shows us, at least so goes the argument, that you don’t need a God to have evolution. 

No, you don’t need a God. But, you know, if you want if you I don’t see why you should see this as in conflict with a God if you have this idea to begin with. It’s just I don’t I don’t quite understand why people feel threatened by it. It is true that if you’re going to take the Bible literally and think that things were done in this short amount of time and then, yeah, this is going to be a problem. But Jim Underdown you’re saying it doesn’t have to be. 

You can you’re a compatibles in that way. You try to have at a time between science and religion, let them kind of each have their own territory, not really be at war. 


I mean, personally, I guess I see myself as being in some ways spiritually tone deaf. So I don’t quite understand what people are after. But it’s not to say that I think that I’m just a materialist. I think that I need music and beauty and art and love and all these other things. But this idea of of a God separate from the universe or whatever the concept is that people have. I guess I don’t get that. 

Well, let’s sir touch just really quickly again on evolution. Tell me why people should learn it. Whether or not they’re religious, why should people learn evolution? 

Because I think you saw to in understanding evolution, you can understand a lot of the things that you see around you, you can understand even your own some of your own impulses, some of your own. I mean, I do think that applying evolutionary theory to human behavior is a fruitful endeavor. I think a lot of what’s done with it now is kind of silly, right? 

It’s kind of a new field. Evolutionary psychology is kind of a it’s a nascent field. But you say it’s fruitful to at least explore in that direction. 

Yes, I think it’s wonder stands a lot of our dark impulses. 

A lot of our feelings are a lot of our feelings are knee jerk reactions of a phobia of suspicion of of strangers. Of our desire to gossip. I mean, all of these impulses that are kind of we think of as as as sort of our base ourselves in a way they are based or selves in so far as they’ve probably been around a long time. And I think that by understanding evolutionary forces and why we are the way we are, that I, I find it to be a source of self illumination, but also just understanding the relationship among all living things on Earth and why we should protect the planet. And I mean, just there’s all sorts of reasons why understanding, if you know nothing in biology, can be understood except in the light of evolution. As yet, those still Zemsky, the Russian biologist, said, and it’s true that to understand all living things, you have to see them as connected through these evolutionary processes and or why you shouldn’t take too many antibiotics because they’re going to get resistance. 

Why the life on your kid’s head is probably the best thing you can do is not to try to kill them, but to just pick them out once by one. I mean, there’s all sorts of practical things that come out of it. But just to understand nature, I do think that evolution is is a critical component of that. 

I want to finish up by talking about science writing. We have scientists doing their science, their research in the white lab, coats in their laboratories, you know, with their beakers and test tubes and whatever. Then there are people like you, science writers, who present all that research. Maybe it’s not a lab. It’s at the telescope, wherever it is. But you’re kind of interpreting science, selling it to the public, presenting it to the public. And then we have a small fraction of the educated public who are boosters for science. They’re the consumers of your product. They’re into your writing. Do you think that all this science writing we have going on out there? You’re at The New York Times, Sharon Begley at Newsweek, so many others, Carl Sagan’s and Richard Dawkins books on on science for the public. Do you think it’s having an impact? You know, you’re kind of the middleman between the the science enthusiast and the scientist. Is it making a difference? I guess I should first ask you, are you trying to make a difference? Is there an agenda in your science writing? 

I think we’re all trying to make a difference insofar as we’re trying to elucidate science and make it part of the everyday conversation that we’re all having. Definitely. Whether or not science writing, popular science writing, since I’ve kind of been involved in the field from the beginning of this new generation of science writing that began late 70s, early 80s, we thought that there was this growing appetite for popular science. 

And you don’t think there is? Well, I think that it seems to be pretty much of a full operation. It comes and goes. I don’t I mean, newspapers are getting rid of all their science writers now. 

Right. The Atlantic doesn’t have any science writing. Harper says no science writing. Do you ever see it being able to attract a larger audience? Do you ever see there being more demand for what you’re doing, selling science or popularizing science to the non science public? 

Probably in an Asian country, that seems to be something that they’re much more interested in following. I think. 

I don’t know what’s what’s going to happen, I think maybe this whole resurgence of interest in the environment and and global warming that seems to be making people much more interested in becoming literate about the whole global cycles of the atmosphere and water and so on. But maybe that’s good. Maybe people just need something to get panicked about. 

So scare people into appreciating something or, you know, come up with a new race for the moon, which made people really excited about science back in the day when we were competing with the Soviet Union. Right. That’s right. 

So another way of putting that last question I asked you is if you win people over. You said you don’t really know if we will. But if you do, if science writers in general get more people out there fully appreciating science, what’s going to happen to society? What’s the payoff? 

I think people might be a little bit less prone to being bamboozled. I think that a little bit of sensible thinking would perhaps be the payoff, the ultimate payoff. One thing I like about scientists is they do tend to be sensible. They don’t get hysterical about things. I mean, I just talked about fear mongering as a way to get people interested. 

But the truth is that scientists, as a rule, they are you know, they look at things and they try to sort of do a risk benefit analysis just on the fly. Just to see what you know, what’s going on. And that kind of sensible thinking, just taking everything and trying to understand it seems to me to be something that could really help fall, but help us all to stop being hair trigger, to stop coming up with these absolutist statements, because very little is absolute. 

So I think that rational thinking and just sensible thinking would be the ultimate payoff here. So that’s what we’re all hoping for. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

Natalie Angier, thank you so much for having me. It was fun. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnally and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz point of inquiry. His music is composed warwas by Emmy Award winning Michael Dwalin. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.