Angier, Natalie

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ANGIER, Natalie

Born 1958, Bronx, New York

Married Rick Weiss; children: Katherine

Natalie Angier is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times and the author of three books about scientists and scientific discovery. She is known for making complicated subjects understandable and interesting to the lay reader, often adding her own personal slant.

Bronx, New York-born Angier was one of four brothers and sisters in a working-class family. She first attended the University of Michigan and then Barnard, where her work in literature, physics, and astronomy foreshadowed her future multidisciplinary interests. She received her B.A. degree in 1978 and embarked on two years of graduate studies in medieval literature before accepting her first writing job as a technical writer at Texas Instruments.

In 1980 she became a researcher at Discover, a magazine being launched by Time Inc., where she was soon promoted to writer and began specializing in evolutionary biology. Angier left Discover for a brief tenure at a women's magazine before becoming Time's science writer from 1984 to 1990.

When the New York Times' molecular biology writer retired in 1990, Angier assumed that position and, within a year, had won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for science reporting. She has also received a science journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Lewis Thomas Award.

Angier's first book, Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene (1988), examines the work of two teams of molecular biologists competing to be first to isolate the gene for retinoblastoma, a juvenile eye cancer. Angier's approach, analogous to that of an anthropologist, resulted in a book as much about the scientists' personal traits, good and bad, as it was about the discovery itself.

Reviewer Anthony Van Niel, M.D., writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, took issue with her fast-paced portrayal of science, which ignores the painstaking tedium so much a part of the discipline, as well as with her definition of success in the world of science. "The significance of cancer-fighting discoveries tends to get lost here amid soul-searching, petty rivalries and tentative experiments," he wrote. He continued, however, by saying, "She does a superb job of educating the reader in the basics of molecular biology pertinent to oncogenes (a formidable task!), so that it is easy to follow the sequence of investigations and share in the highs and lows of difficult experiments. What she seems to enjoy even more is populating the laboratory with an assortment of the most uncommon characters. All have a story, perhaps only remotely related to their work, that serves to make them human."

Angier's second book, The Beauty of the Beastly: New Views on the Nature of Life (1995), is a collection of essays, many of which first appeared in the New York Times, offered there in a revised and more personal form. She offers an evolutionary view of subjects, including parental and sexual behavior of various species, among other issues. One primary theme, which appears throughout much of her writing, is that the ugly can be beautiful, and vice versa. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote, "Not afraid to anthropomorphize, she even sees molecules as characters in little plays; the decadence of orchids, she says, would make Oscar Wilde wilt… .From cockroaches to cheetahs, DNA to elephant dung, Angier gives us intimate and dramatic portraits of nature that readers will find rewarding."

The New York Times Book Review praised Angier's knowledge of science and her ability to put forth new theories rather than simply summarize others. "Graphic description and colorful simile, traditional tools of natural history popularizers, are not found wanting…. But the touch of urbane irony, the ever-present smile in the fold of the phrase—these are rare gifts that shine with unaccustomed splendor in this most engaging writer. More than ever, we need good interpreters, and Natalie Angier is one who is constitutionally incapable of writing a boring sentence."

Angier's latest book, Woman: An Intimate Geography (1999), is a feminist work that tears down many tenets of evolutionary psychology dealing with male-female relationships and is supplemented by Angier's personal experiences. Sharon Begley of Newsweek called the book "a treasure chest of did-you-knows."

In Discover, Polly Shulman wrote, "[ Woman] combines lyrical descriptions of the female body with a spirited defense of science done right." She added, "Linguistic puritans who believe that the only scientifically valid description is a dry one will find plenty of lush, metaphoric language to cringe at, but they will have a harder time finding flaws in the reasoning." Schulman echoes the views of other critics who find Angier's writing style occasionally over the top, although they consistently praise her scientific arguments.

Marilyn Yalom, on the other hand, is one of the many observers who enjoy Angier's way with prose. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Yalom found Angier's "flights into poetic rapture" to be one of the book's strengths, adding, "The book is a rollicking celebration of womanhood." In Publishers Weekly, Ann Darby wrote of Angier, "Tackling unusual, sometimes even repugnant topics in vivid, playful and acrobatic prose, she has developed a style and an approach to stories that are distinctly hers. Gifted with a voracious and wide-ranging curiosity, she is always on the watch for exotic and sometimes whimsical subjects."

In interviews, Angier has commented on her tendency to personalize the topics about which she writes, noting that she approaches her subject "idiosyncratically, with my biases, impressions and desires flapping out like the tongue of an untucked blouse."


Other reference:

Discover (May 1999). Newsweek (12 Apr. 1999). New England Journal of Medicine (6 Apr. 1989). NYTBR (10 Jul. 1988, 18 June 1995, 8 Apr. 1999). PW (22 Apr. 1988, 8 May 1995, 22 Mar. 1999).