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'Unweaving The Rainbow' by Richard Dawkins

Seeing science as a thing of beauty

Sunday, March 14, 1999

By Len Barcousky, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

 
 

Unweaving The Rainbow

By Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin
$26.00

   
 

Most of the high school students interviewed for a Post-Gazette “Teen Forum” last month complained that their science classes are boring and difficult.

They, and perhaps their teachers, should read Richard Dawkins’ book about the poetry and beauty he finds at the heart of astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, paleontology and physics.

Science isn’t always easy, he admits in “Unweaving the Rainbow,” but it is always challenging, mind-expanding and fascinating.

Dawkins, an evolution expert who teaches at Oxford University, wrote his latest book as a response to a 179-year-old lament from the poet John Keats. Keats complained that scientists since the time of Isaac Newton had been killing wonder as they strove to explain how the world works.

Dawkins says that Newton’s famous experiments, using a prism to separate light into its constituent colors — what Keats called “unweaving the rainbow” — did not kill poetry but, instead, exponentially increased the possibilities for wonder.

Building on Newton’s discoveries about the nature of light, other scientists learned how its spectrum changed, depending on the materials that produced it. Combining those insights with careful observations of the faint illuminations stars produce, astronomers now can determine the chemical composition of objects so far away that the light we can see tonight began its journey before the ancestors of humans came down from the trees.

That’s real poetry, Dawkins argues. “Name any event in history,” he writes, “and you will find a star out there whose light gives you a glimpse of something happening during the year of that event. … When you look at one of your birth year stars, your telescope is a time machine, letting you witness thermonuclear events that are actually taking place during the year you were born.”

He is an elegant writer who strives to describe concepts in astrophysics, analytical chemistry, statistics and evolutionary theory clearly. He’s sure about what he knows, but he emphasizes the importance of keeping an eye peeled for new information that may require a change in conclusions. He approvingly quotes the Third Law proposed by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

He makes occasional missteps.

Stephen Jay Gould, a professor at Harvard University, is a prolific writer of science essays for nonexperts. Dawkins spends the better part of a chapter attacking what he says is a dangerous combination of good writing and bad science in Gould’s support of the “branch point explosion hypothesis.” That’s a theory used to explain the astounding variety of fossil life found during the Cambrian era, about 500 million years ago. Dawkins makes a clear, persuasive case, but his effort seems like overkill.

Sometimes his language seems almost like a parody of English prose: “I myself have never forgotten the spectacle of my Oxford contemporary, the Nawab of Pataudi (one of India’s greatest cricketeers, even after losing one eye) fielding for the university and throwing the ball with devastating speed and accuracy at the wicket ...” That sentence sounds like a winner in the P. G. Wodehouse bad-writing competition.

But then Dawkins will follow with a passage combining beauty and insight. He argues that the unconscious use by early man of ballistic theory to hunt with rocks and sticks may have driven natural selection. It rewarded our ancestors who had bigger brains that could provide the computing power needed to hurl with accuracy. From that physical throwing may have sprung language, abstract thought and consciousness: “Could throwing have been the forerunner of foresight itself? When we throw our mind forward in imagination, are we doing something almost literal as well as metaphorical. When the first word was uttered, somewhere in Africa, did the speaker imagine himself throwing a missile from his mouth to his intended hearer?”

Such passages make clear that science offers opportunity for clear-thinking poets. It makes me wish that a new Milton, knowledgeable, say, about particle physics, should live and be writing at this hour. He could help me appreciate the images the Hubble Telescope sends back of deepest space or understand how computer scientists can make so much information dance on something much smaller than the tiny head of the slimmest of pins.

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