Science Reads: ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ by Richard Dawkins

Today in Science Reads, I’d like to talk about a book that argues that scientific knowledge enhances, rather than destroys, our sense of wonder about the universe. In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins has written a rebuttal to John Keats’s idea that Isaac Newton “destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours”. For the most part, Dawkins does this clearly, effectively and with a sense of humour. There are fascinating discussions about astronomy, sound perception, forensic DNA testing and how genetics can reveal information about the ancestral environment of a particular species. My favourite chapter was about how Uncanny Coincidences (for instance, your horoscope correctly predicting your future, or a TV magician making wristwatches stop or start with the power of his mind) are usually not very uncanny at all, once you use probability mathematics and scientific logic to work out how likely it is that these events will occur.

Dawkins also discusses how scientists can sometimes get a bit carried away with using ‘poetical writing’ to convey their ideas, at the expense of clarity and accuracy. This was the part of the book where I felt Dawkins forgot his central thesis and got a bit carried away himself, on tangents that were not very interesting. Unfortunately, he also devotes a few pages of this book to one of his pet peeves – “feminist bullies” who apparently try to prevent young women from studying science because it’s the “brainchild of white Victorian males”. Now, as a woman who has studied science and worked in a couple of science-related fields, I feel I have a bit more personal experience in this area than Richard Dawkins, and I have to say that all the people who tried to discourage me from science were not feminists, but sexist men, starting with my Year Eleven Physics teacher, who informed us that girls didn’t have the right sort of brains to understand Maths and Physics1. This attitude was shared by male staff teaching Pure Mathematics at the university I subsequently attended.2 In fairness to Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow was first published in 1998, and his more recent books, such as The God Delusion, seem far less anti-feminist. Perhaps his views have matured, or perhaps his publishers pointed out to him that women read books about science, too, and that annoying the people who have bought his book is a bad business strategy.3 Anyway, this is a small part of an interesting, entertaining and often inspirational book, which I recommend with some reservations.

Tomorrow in Science Reads: Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry.

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  1. I would have made a rude gesture at this Physics teacher from the stage of our school assembly hall the following year, when I was awarded the school prizes for Physics and Chemistry, but fortunately for everyone, he’d retired by then.
  2. Although I should point out that the (male) Applied Maths lecturers were so enthusiastic and fun that I briefly considered becoming a statistician. And my (male) Chemistry professor was similarly encouraging.
  3. I don’t think his views have matured very much, given some of the things Dawkins has said in response to women being sexually harassed and assaulted at atheist conferences.

2 thoughts on “Science Reads: ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ by Richard Dawkins”

  1. I had missed checking this blog all week, so now I have four interesting reviews to read all at once, which is nice.

    I did want to comment on the ‘sexist men’ and women in science. I’m currently a maths PhD student, and it has been somewhat depressing to see the small number of women in my subject. My mother is a Professor of Pure Maths, so I never got those sort of comments at school though there was one teacher who I think wanted to make them! But it was very sad that in four years as an undergraduate I never once had a female lecturer.

    In my opinion, what puts women off from studying science and careers in science are: stupid perceptions that boys are “just better at it” (which is clearly not true), pressure to do something that “helps someone else” (and some of that is fine, and just leads to women in areas of science with more direct applications, and away from theoretical physics, but can be very frustrating when that’s not what you’re interested in), and the humiliating position of being one of a small minority, especially a harassed minority. I’ve been very lucky – I have the “right” language, family background and race, and on the whole I haven’t experienced much sexism. But I know other women who aren’t so lucky, and it can but utterly horrible.

    It’s also very nice to read the blog of a published author, whose books I have enjoyed enormously, who is also a scientist and whose characters enjoy science without being seen as weird. Because I have read far too many books where the characters think science, and maths in particular, is horribly hard and no-one could ever like it.

    1. Thanks for your insightful comment, Kitty, and I’m glad you haven’t had to cope with a lot of sexism in your academic life. I do think things are gradually improving – my bad experiences were at high school and as a young undergraduate in the 1980s, which was quite a while ago.

      I’m not working in anything science-related at the moment, so I’m not really a scientist – just someone with a science degree and a lifelong interest in the subject. I’m certainly one of those women who preferred working in science that was ‘helpful’ (health sciences, in my case). But I think you might like my next book, because it’s full of science (and history)! I just have to a) finish it and b) find a publisher willing to publish a book for teenagers that’s full of science. Have you read Loving Richard Feynman, the YA novel by Penny Tangey? It has a science-loving teenage girl narrator.

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