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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩