She is the kind of woman you wish you'd had beside you in high school chemistry—tiny, ferociously intelligent, she'd eye you over a boiling beaker and explain exactly what the experiment was all about.
"I tend to want to write about things that people don't know that they should know," she says. Things like why the world has so many cockroaches; how the clitoris keeps peace among bonobo apes; and what happens in the high-pressure environment of research labs."
Angier's latest foray into the world of scientific explanation, The Canon: A Whirling Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (Houghton Mifflin, May), began with a deceptively modest proposal: she'd write a charming introduction to the most important ideas in physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy. Sitting in her home in Takoma Park, Md., in a sunny office crammed with artwork, books and an enormous L-shaped desk, Angier now marvels at her own naïveté.
"I thought, It's going to be almost like a flip book. Just bulleted things. Ha!" she laughs. "But you can't give just little squibby things." To really understand the ideas, readers need not just facts, which anyone can find on the Internet. They need an overarching narrative that pulls facts and ideas together into a cohesive whole.
So Angier ditched the easy format and began the difficult work of researching and understanding the fundamental ideas of hard science. Then she labored just as hard to make our understanding of those ideas a snap. The result is a volume of nine chapters, each with the explanatory power of a whole book, each easily consumed in lazy weekend afternoon.
Can We Please Move Back?
Angier's first love wasn't equations or electrons: it was New York City. Born in 1958, Angier was raised in the Bronx at a time when the borough was in dramatic transition.
"It was like West Side Story," she recalls. The older Jewish immigrant community was fleeing. The Irish, Italian, African-American and Puerto Rican teenagers were forming gangs.
Angier didn't fit comfortably into any of those religious or ethnic groups. Her mother is Jewish. Her father was, serially, Protestant, Catholic and Buddhist. She became a devout atheist.
But whatever troubles Angier experienced living in the Bronx, they were outweighed by the pleasures of living in the Big Apple during the Age of Aquarius. Every weekend, the Angier family went into Manhattan, joining be-ins and concerts in Central Park, visiting museums. Angier keeps a photograph from that time hanging in her dining room: it shows the author, her parents and two of her three siblings sitting in a small living room decorated with drippy candles, a Japanese burial figure and an astrology chart. Two guns mounted on the wall hint at the Angiers' long American history: they've fought in every American war since the Revolution.
Angier's father did his stint in the army in WWII, and was given "an honorable discharge with a diagnosis of borderline personality, borderline schizophrenia, whatever they called it back then," Angier says. For years he worked as a machinist at Otis Elevator Company—a job he hated—while Angier's mother taught math in Bronx public schools.
"My parents always had a very rocky relationship," she says. Her father could be violent. Still, Angier was devastated when they split when she was 12, partly because Angier's mother moved her and her younger brother to the small town of New Buffalo, Mich.
"I wept nonstop for the entire 18-hour" train ride, Angier once wrote. She wasn't any happier once the train reached the station. In New Buffalo, the hippie child from New York seemed like an urban weirdo. And the underfunded high school couldn't keep her challenged. She skipped two grades.
"I was begging [my mother] the whole time: 'Can we move back to New York?' " Angier remembers. But they stayed until she won a scholarship to the University of Michigan—a fact that still makes her angry. In 1977, her father died of cancer. Angier blames the state for keeping her away from him for the last eight years of his life.
No Hawk Watching
The one time Angier was grateful for Michigan may have been during her 1980 interview with Discover editor Leon Jaroff. By that point, Angier had transferred to and graduated from Barnard College in Manhattan. (Her degree was in English lit, with a minor in physics and astronomy.) She'd also spent two years trying to find a career that combined science and art. Her drawings were too shaky for architecture school. A job writing computer software evaporated when the company folded. She'd been out of work for a month when she heard that Time Inc. was starting a general-interest magazine about science—but her only experience in journalism was a brief spell at UMichigan's school newspaper.
"Well," Jaroff said, "anyone who wrote for the Michigan Daily is good enough for me." He himself had edited the newspaper while he was a student in Ann Arbor.
Discover magazine turned Angier into a reporter, forcing her to overcome her natural shyness and teaching her how to research and organize a story. Of particular importance to her were the lessons of editor Jesse Birnbaum, who drilled Angier in the rules of the magazine's legendary style.
"He taught me the sin of using clichés," Angier says. "I remember I was writing a story about the Westinghouse talent search kids and I used something like 'watched like a hawk.' Jesse saw that in my copy, and he was not just angry, he was screaming: 'Never, never do that again.' " On better days, Birnbaum encouraged Angier's use of wordplay and metaphor, which are now a hallmark of her work.
Screaming or praising, the lessons paid off. By 1985 Angier had become a senior science writer for Time and sold her first book, Natural Obsessions: Striving to Unlock the Deepest Secrets of the Cancer Cell, to the late Peter Davison, who took the project with him when he moved from Atlantic to Houghton Mifflin.
Angier had written hundreds of articles by that point; still, she found the writing process as grueling as swimming an ocean, she says. "When you're in the middle of writing a book, there's no horizon. It's all just all around you." The only thing that kept her going was that she'd already spent the advance.
After that first experience, Angier wasn't eager to write another book. Her second volume, The Beauty of the Beastly: New Views of the Nature of Life (1995), contained mostly essays reprinted from articles she wrote for the New York Times, where she'd taken a job in 1990 and won a Pulitzer for beat reporting in 1991.
Angier did eventually write a second book, the 1999 National Book Award finalist and NewYork Times bestseller Woman: An Intimate Geography. It's sold 200,000 copies in U.S. and has been translated into some 20 languages.
Angier's husband, Rick Weiss, is also a science writer (for the Washington Post). Before they fell in love, they were both finalists for the New York Times job that Angier landed. But now they're not competitive, but supportive, Angier says. Weiss even helped Angier with the preliminary interviewing for The Canon. "When I wrote some of the early versions of it, I actually used the pronoun 'we,' " Angier says, although eventually she opted for her usual first-person voice.
Relations are somewhat more complicated with Angier's 10-year-old daughter, Katherine. "She wants to think of me as someone whose main job in life is facilitating her wonderfulness, rather than think of me as someone with an entire career," Angier says. Someday, she hopes, Katherine will feel proud of everything her mother's accomplished. In the meantime, though, Angier's making compromises. First among them: she'll try to finish swimming her oceans before dinner.