Subtitled Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
, and published in 1998, this is a book by Richard Dawkins
, the outspoken and inimitable biologist and popularizer of science. Dawkins made his name with his excellent books on evolution
, particularly The Selfish Gene
and The Blind Watchmaker
- and also with his militant atheism
and belief in the power of science and the non-miraculous nature of the universe. Unweaving the Rainbow
, which takes its title from a phrase used by the poet John Keats
to express his dislike of science, moves away from evolution towards a general look at science and its relationship to people.
Dawkins' thesis is essentially that there is in everyone a healthy sense of wonder, and yearning for mystery, but in many people it is misdirected towards such chicanery as astrology and ufology; and, worse, a distrust of science, which is seen as destroying mysteries and diminishing beauty. Dawkins aims to show that far from corrupting our sense of beauty and mystery, good science enhances and complements it.
He passionately believes that the universe is a fascinating, wonderful place, and that we are immeasurably lucky to be alive - firstly to be alive at all, but particularly at a time when science is uncovering mystery and beauty in the universe that we could never have dreamed of before. He introduces the idea of "poetic science", by which he means scientific discoveries that invoke a sense of beauty in the same manner as the best poetry. He doesn't, of course, mean science written in verse, but he does think science should be an inspiration for poets (and other artists), and quotes Wordsworth's prediction that "The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or the mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet's art as any upon which it can be employed."
Dawkins selects various topics as examples of science capable of invoking a sense of wonder. One is astronomy, with its fascinating but neglected glimpse into a spectacular universe, a universe so large that for most of its inhabitants (if there are any) we literally do not even exist yet. Another is the science of sound and other slow-moving waves.
Apart from demonstrating the beauty of science, Dawkins also wishes to wean us off what he sees as the cheap alternatives - pseudoscience, mysticism and superstition. His particular target is astrology, which he derides as "meaningless pap" and "an aesthetic affront", and he points out that its language makes no sense in terms of real astronomy, and that its practitioners are hopelessly inconsistent with each other's predictions (0.1 consistency, to be exact). There is also a chapter on probability theory, in which he shows how we are apt to read more significance into coincidences than is valid, but also demonstrates some of the genuinely fascinating discoveries of the mathematics of probability.
Another chapter, "Barcodes at the Bar", is about the role of science in the legal system - genetic fingerprinting, probability, and so forth. He shows how science has a great contribution to make, but that this is often ignored or misunderstood by those who have not learned to understand it. He notes the fact that many lawyers in America are now discriminating against scientifically-literate jurors because it is easier to manipulate a jury that does not properly understand the evidence.
Towards the end of the book he drifts back into his favourite realm of evolutionary theory, speculating on the evolution of language and the brain, and introducing the idea of the "Genetic Book of the Dead" - the set of all possible genomes, a concept also used by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, an ally of Dawkins, under the name "The Library of Mendel". There is also a chapter, "Reweaving the World", about scientific psychology, and particularly perception.
Unweaving the Rainbow will appeal to anyone, professional or amateur, who understands the beauty of science and is frustrated by the negativity and indifference with which it is often viewed. It is an elegant statement of the belief that the universe - which anyone can see is a fascinating place - becomes more beautiful, not less, when put under the microscope. Science allows us to appreciate and understand the world in a way which mysticism does not, and it is a public treasure which everyone should be allowed to appreciate.
Dawkins uses an analogy with music - not everyone can create music, but everyone can appreciate it. Science is the same, he says, and if people don't recognise this, it's because it's not being taught in a way that encourages the sense of wonder that Dawkins and other scientists feel. (A leading member of the Royal Society recently agreed; the quality of science education in Great Britain is nothing to write home about.)
The book does not have quite the sense of depth of Dawkins' evolutionary works, perhaps because it explicitly an attempt to bring science to the public, rather than expound his own technical views for the benefit of biologists. But it does place him on the list of those in science who are not afraid to challenge the stereotype of the humourless, philistine scientist and proclaim a love of beauty and poetry.