City Paper is not for tourists
Natalie Angier has a confession to make.
Before becoming a well-known stroker of snakes and hugger of hyenas; before winning, among others, the Pulitzer Prize, the Lewis Thomas Award, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award; before becoming a writer for Time and then the New York Times, Angier had to complete a high-school science project. She was supposed to assemble and mount a collection of insects native to the area around her adoptive hometown of New Buffalo, Mich.
The future fearless writer—in her new book, The Beauty of the Beastly, Angier gets up close and personal with cockroaches, scorpions, and pit vipers, never mind menstruation, suicide, and the specter of ghastly old age presaged by her grandmother—did fine with the collecting, but couldn’t bring herself to off her prey.
“I got my younger brother to do it,” she says in a telephone interview. “They made a beautiful display, but when I got to school with it I noticed that a couple of them were still moving. I didn’t know what to do.”
In her journey up from thanatophobia, Angier got an education unusual for a liberal arts type. The Bronx-born daughter of an elevator mechanic, she had bounced to Michigan as a teen-ager with her mother after her parents divorced. She returned to New York via Barnard College, where longtime interests propelled her in what were, for the era, contradictory directions.
“I was one of those kids who always liked natural history books, and I was always interested in writing,” she says. “At Barnard, I wanted my thinking to be more vigorous, so I started taking physics, calculus, computer courses.”
In the ’70s, few English majors were doing likewise; Angier almost switched to full-on science. Instead, she soldiered down her bifurcate path, briefly thinking of founding a magazine for her ilk—the lay person who wanted detailed coverage of the scientific realm, but not a hypertechnical journal.
After college, she went to work for Texas Instruments, where she wrote manuals for the hard- and software to be used in digitizing the record distribution business. “It was pretty cool, working in the dark ages of computers,” she says.
But the business environment wasn’t right, and the scheme flopped. Fortunately, Time Inc. was launching Discover, the embodiment of Angier’s undergraduate musings. She applied, the Luceites beckoned, and her real writing career began. After Discover, she moved to Time, then to academe, teaching science writing to NYU graduate students while completing Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene, a 1988 book about scientists’ pursuit of the genetic elements that control cancer. Besides earning widespread praise as the medical-research equivalent of Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder’s examination of computer R&D, Obsessions prompted Angier a call from the New York Times. She has worked for the paper ever since, writing 70 to 80 articles a year that reflect a startling catholicity. The Beauty of the Beastly samples 41 of those, ranging from the seamy underbelly of the mating instinct to Stephen Jay Gould’s musings on fame to a deeply felt essay on a friend’s death from AIDS.
Organized in the rough arc of a life—its sections are titled “Loving,” “Dancing,” “Slithering,” “Adapting,” “Healing,” “Creating,” and “Dying”—Beastly delivers a strong dose of Angier’s trademark: crisp analysis rendered in galvanizing imagery. Orchids are “the P.T. Barnums of the flower kingdom.” Stretched full-length, a single human DNA molecule would be as tall as the average nursery-school pupil. A MacArthur Award-winning scientist has a telephone voice at odds with her achievements: “…she sounds small and timid, like a character from a moody Anita Brookner novel who sits by herself at a corner table, sipping tea and dispassionately reviewing the minor disappointments of her life.”
As noted with indignation by some critics, Angier also has a propensity for discussing animal, plant, and even cellular behavior in human terms—a useful gambit, but one fraught with risk, as she admits.
“I am trying to tell stories,” she says. “If I make everything a character in a drama, that makes it more interesting for me. I anthropomorphize for narrative’s sake. I may overstep and I can be silly, but under my sense of playfulness I try to be accurate.”
And the Tuesday “Science Times” section isn’t a professional journal, she points out. “I like to think that I have more liberty than a scientist, and that I should not be held to the same standards as if I were publishing in Nature or Science,” Angier says. “The popular audience is already resistant to the subject; you have to pull out the stops and ring the bells and blow the whistles to say, “Hey, there is this whole way of knowing, and I want to try to guide you through it without being didactic.’ ”
So Angier doesn’t sweat the occasional anthropomorphic binge, although she does warn against cavalier extrapolation. “To attribute motivation to an organism is not necessarily bad, but you have to step back, as you would with another person,” she says. “You can’t say that they share your values. The danger lies in saying, “This is how I would react.’ ” One perquisite of winning Pulitzers is the leverage to live where you like, and Angier likes to live in Takoma Park, Md. One reason is that husband Rick Weiss, a fellow toiler in the vineyard of science journalism, works for the Washington Post. But D.C. also holds a charm for the expatriate Gothamite. “I like Washington more than New York,” she says. “It’s more livable. It’s greener. There is a sky that you can see.”
Angier’s main complaint is that she spends too much time on the horn and not enough in the lab or roaming the veld. “The people in the Times bureau here do most of their work by phone,” she says. “I try to get out; you have to fight against that. But travel budgets everywhere are being cut back, and it is a battle.”
Angier says the lure of the natural world is its ability to yank her from the confined space where she spends so much working time: her own head. “Looking at certain things makes you feel invigorated and calm at the same time,” Angier says. “Places where there is sparkling water and sun imply a source of food. Some ancient evolutionary strain pulls you out of yourself to watch the scene. My self-absorption disappears, and I feel an expansion of consciousness that I can’t get from anything else.” Her research technique is simple: She seizes on any excuse she can to find a new world inside the world of her chosen subject. “I tend to start narrow and then broaden my coverage,” she says. For a piece about cockroaches—of which, as a child, she had a fear that she describes as near-pathological—Angier posed the question, “Can roaches resist the newest weapon against them, Combat?” Her answer, titled “There Is Nothing Like a Roach,” is half horror story, half paean to the bothersome critter.
And sometimes Angier simply follows her curiosity. “A lot of stuff comes out of my own thinking about life,” she says. “The Other Side of Suicide,” a consideration of the impulse to off oneself, arose from a scene in a TV nature program. A rodent emerged from a burrow wearing an expression of utter anomie, whereupon a hawk swooped down and carried it away. “That rodent looked to me to have given up, and I thought, “Life is difficult for every animal. What about animals getting tired of it?’ ” Angier explains. “It was a half-cocked idea, but I called around wildly and asked people, “Is there anything to this?’ Sometimes you hit pay dirt, and someone says, “Oh, I’ve been working on that!’ I believe that any obsession you have is being studied by someone somewhere.”