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A smorgasbord of common sense
on 9 October 2006
There are many good science writers presenting us with challenging and informative material. Paraphrasing Newton's famous disclaimer, however, Richard Dawkins seems to stand on the shoulders of the rest. This collection of essays rebutting the miasma of Romantic Era complaints about science is more timely now than when first published. The myth that science curtails - instead of enlarging - our sense of wonder, still persists. A Keats' poem, the inspiration of this title, typifies not only the world of poetry and prose writing, but also our dominant religions, our educational curricula and even, as he points out devastatingly, our favourite entertainments. Dawkins, in this superbly crafted collection of essays, refutes the Romantics and their legacy. He ably demonstrates how science enhances our knowledge, our values and our sense of being.
Dawkins cites Thomas Huxley's ["Darwin's Bulldog"] assessment of science as "organised common sense" as but a first step in explaining what science reveals. Expanding on Huxley, the American Lewis Wolpert, argues that Nature is full of surprises and paradoxes. A glass of water may contain a molecule of Shakespeare's last cup of tea. Our credulity at seemingly inexplicable coincidences, our "gasps of awe" at the tricks "psychics" and other charlatans play on us, and our adherence to the teachings of "mystics" and other mountebanks may lie in the habits developed when we lived on the savannah. Dawkins urges us to recognise that science, unlike religion or quack medicine, does not aim to deceive us. Quite the reverse. Science, in stripping away mythologies, reveals new forms of stunning beauty.
It may seem paradoxical that Nature's wonders can be explained through barcodes, but Dawkins manages it with his usual panache. In this case, he demonstrates how the familiar stripes on commercial products have natural equivalents. "Barcodes in the Stars" are the analytical tools known as Fraunhofer lines which impart so much information about those distant nuclear furnaces. Many experiments we cannot stage on this planet are taking place within distant stellar globes. The forces, temperatures and atomic reactions exceed anything we can duplicate, but the "barcodes" are precise records of these events. These "barcodes" are the result of Newton's early discovery of sunshine being "unwoven" into a spectrum. We've also learned how the elements making up our bodies come from those pinpricks in the darkness.
Part of Dawkins' role as a conveyor of "Public Understanding of Science" is the contending with mis-applications and abuses of science. Dawkins has long campaigned against the "hijacking" of science to confuse and distract the public from what science really does. He's firmly set against the notion that "science destroys beauty", but he's equally adamant against "bad poetry of science". He's rightfully scornful of Teilhard de Chardin's fumbling mysticism of early in the last century. Anyone thinking the Jesuit's approach is "ancient history" need only glance at some of the recent submissions on these pages. A more advanced, if less innocuous thesis, according to Dawkins, is the transmutation of James Lovelock's Gaia concept by "New Age" advocates. Dawkins concedes the Gaia concept is appealing in that it grants all life validity. Destruction of habitats and ecosystems is appallingly wasteful. However, he argues, until we abandon "wishy-washy" views of how species interact, we will never approach the solutions to our exterminations of life realistically.
There are solid reasons for advocating this as the best of Dawkins' efforts. He addresses many issues of deep concern to us all. Is there a solution to the destruction of the environment by our species? How does life truly operate and must we all tramp back to university to learn its arcane mechanisms? What do we truly know about our world and the universe it occupies? More important to many, will learning what makes up the rainbow remove our feeling of its beauty? While it's tempting to answer those questions here, it's far better for you to pick up this book and derive the answers yourself. You won't be disappointed by what you read. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]