on 21 April 2011
Discovering THIS Richard Dawkins is like finding gold. For those who read his books AFTER reading The God Delusion it must be something of a surprise to find that Scientific Wonder is his real strength (particularly Evolutionary Biology of course). He really is at his best when he sticks to science (much as I enjoyed his foray into religion - I knew that Christianity/Islam were Iron Age myths anyway).
This book takes us, the reader, by the hand and leads us through a veritable gallery of wonders, questioning asides, and tales of individual endeavour, all recounted with clear-headed wit and sagacity.
If I hear another Christian say that "Dawkins thinks Life is Empty" - I will scream! The sheer joy, excitement and fulfilment that are obvious in his writings - they knock "faith" out of the ballpark, really. Evidenced Truth wins hands-down over religion every time - even when it comes to Joy. So Keats did get it wrong when he accused science of trying to "unweave the rainbow". Science writing like this brings the rainbow into the realm of Understanding - but that only enhances its beauty.
I heartily recommend this.
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]
Not many people have the gift of taking some common event and deconstructing it to the nth degree, while making it all seem quite normal. As in his other books (Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, etc.) Mr. Dawkins makes your mind boggle at the way nature use very simple (?) building blocks to fashion something extraordinary ... like us. You are set back on your heels when you realise that your body is largely composed of modified bacteria, without which we could not exist. He goes on to expound on how we see and from there how our brain interprets the world, comparing it to Virtual Reality (no comparison!) - anyone who has experienced any form of VR will understand the immense computing power it takes to present even a half-decent rendition, but the brain does this continuously AND has time to dream, imagine, remember past events and places all in real-time - I doubt if enough teraflops of computer power exist in the world even now to do that.
The main thrust of the book is the poetry of science; how, by understanding more about the way the universe works, we can appreciate the wonder of it all the better - open our minds to something more beautiful than just the outward appearance of a beautiful object - even make us see the beauty in some not-so-pleasant sights!
In this book he uses well thought-out, easy-to-grasp concepts to explode myths, de-bunk charlatans, and de-mystify magic - all with the intention of opening our minds to the concept of evolution (specifically Darwinism). He takes us from rainbows to barcodes to DNA in easy stages, explaining in graphic (but never tedious) detail just how nature can (and will) evolve all its wonders.
Sometimes I had to put the book on one side just to let the enormity of it all sink in. I still find it hard to grasp the vastness of time it required for nature to accomplish all that it has - yes, I can imagine a thousand years; a million? ... I'm struggling now; a billion? ... overload!
But that's what you need to do to come to grips with the evolutionary process. I suspect it's this lack of comprehension / imagination that is behind the beliefs of many Creationists, or maybe a refusal to accept that evolution can happen without some 'intervention'.
Having laid myself open to attack, I can only recommend that you read what Mr. Dawkins has to say and make up your own mind who has the right of it. *****
on 31 December 1998
It's sad that it needs saying today that science can be fascinating and enriching, and indeed no one without a basic understanding of how scientists think and the basic material they think about can count themselves cultured. Dawkins says it in this book, and demonstrates it through a wide survey of many areas of modern science. Unlike many science writers, Dawkins understands and often contributes to the topics of which he writes - this gives his writing an authority usually lacking from "popular science" writing. On the way, he takes a few sideswipes at his "betes noires" such as religion and the anti-science movement - his message is that a scientific world view is an essential part of our culture because, despite its problems and failures, science works better than any other approach we have found. Read it!
on 12 December 2012
A well written book that shows how beautiful reality actually is, just in case you needed reminding but especially if you never realised. The book is designed to show you just how much more pleasing it can be to hear a truth than to hear a lie; in a sense the book could be the basis for a truly objective view of aesthetics. Dawkins seeks to dispel the myth that truth and science (as a process of achieving truth) are cold and uninteresting; he also explains why this myth can be so damaging especially in light of the fact that this myth is so obviously false.
The first chapter `The Anaesthetic of Familiarity' shows us how and why it is so easy for us to miss the beauty of things around us: Sometimes it is because we fail to really look at things which we see constantly everyday in this respect science can help us; a tree which we pass everyday may become so boring that we don't even look at it anymore (which is sad when you think about it) science offers us the chance to look at that tree as if for the first time. Suddenly a whole new world is opened up to us, the enchanting process of photosynthesis (a fascinating process which has huge potential applications for us if we can master it), the diversity of creatures living on or in the tree, the stunning view of a leaf under a microscope. Science helps us to become even closer to nature.
Chapter 5 `Barcodes in the Stars' Takes us to the science of a rainbow, knowledge that when understood serves to increase the beauty and awe inspired by the sight, it really does make your mind reel with the magnificence of it all; for proof of this you must read this chapter and embrace the barcode.
`Hoodwinked with Fairy Fancy' shows the danger of poor poetical representation of science and the ease with which it can be abused, as Dawkins notes; astrology books sell more than astronomy books, which is a sad and depressing state of affairs.
This book is well worth a read and the world would be a better place if more people thought like this. Enjoy.
on 4 June 2011
Richard Dawkins demonstrates that the aesthetic appeal of the natural world is not diminished by actually understanding it. So, the rainbow is a delight to behold, as is the physics that explains it.
Purveyors of mysticism, astrology and similar pseudo-science receive their inevitable approbrium. This isn't over-emphasised, although personally, I find that thinking about such nonsense to be somewhat of a trial.
The chapters are largely independent, and can be read in any order. Many fields of science are covered, with a bias towards his own field. Short extracts from poetry are introduced at regular intervals - he's obviously a devotee - which many will enjoy.
on 6 November 2013
Richard Dawkins is clearly a man of some considerable genius - his overall knowledge of physics and biology (and evolutionary science in particular) shines through in everything he ever does. Here, he refutes Keats' famous accusation - the poet accused Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow by explaining the origin of its colours, dispelling nature's great mystery.
Dawkins goes on to argue that, in fact, science makes the world even more beautiful, because when you start to understand exactly how the world works, you can appreciate it for all of its genuine scientific beauty. And he's got a point.
Now, I'm not the most scientifically-minded guy, although I try to approach things logically - I just don't necessarily know my quarks from my quasars, like Dawkins does. Nevertheless, his special brand of science is approachable and easy to understand and, in Unweaving the Rainbow, he explains how the world works in a way that enhances its natural beauty. And boy, is nature beautiful.
Sure, it's not exactly easy-going, but Dawkins communicates his point with authority and aplomb, drawing from a long line of poetic and scientific thinkers to convey his message, a reminder of power of science to open minds and to educate the uneducated.
This might not be the best book to read if you're superstitious, religious or otherwise inclined to use that spurious word 'faith' to defend whichever system you believe in, although it might just change your mind about a few things. You'd be better placed to read Unweaving the Rainbow if you prefer to rely on solid facts, as the compelling concepts it contains will only enhance your appreciation of the world that you already look at objectively.
Dawkins' explanation of statistics and probability theory is also a highlight, and there are some true gems hidden inside the manuscript. Well worth a read, it's truly mind-expanding.
on 16 March 2012
By the age of twenty-four, Sir Isaac Newton had discovered the calculus, invented a new kind of telescope, and begun his exploration into the force of gravity. It is easy to see why most scientists consider Newton the greatest of them all. Newton also undertook investigations into the nature of light; he was the first to recombine a spectrum of colours back into white light. For this discovery, Newton was accused by the poet John Keats of destroying the poetry of the rainbow by `reducing it to its prismatic colours'. In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins fervently takes up the defense of Newton, explaining that science only adds to the poetry of nature. As Feynman described, the aestheics of a flower become more appreciable when illuminated by science. The genius of Dawkins' exposition lies not merely in its elegant intonation, which is no less imposing because we have come to expect it, but in its essential truth.
Whilst never mawkish or self-indulgent, Dawkins entertains poetic metaphor and allegory in Unweaving the Rainbow. He believes that good science should stimulate the imagination, and remarks, `It is a central tenet of this book that science, at its best, should leave room for poetry'. Indeed, scientists and poets (artists?) have a lot in common; both are motivated by a sense of wonder for the natural world. Why is science seen as mirthless, uncool, and difficult? Why is proclaiming mathematical ineptitute socially acceptable? How can someone be considered cultured if they possess not a scant understanding of the Laws of Thermodynamics or the process of Natural Selection (regardless of their adeptness at quoting Shakespeare)?
Along the way, Dawkins disposes of charlatans, frauds, and faith-heads. Here, he is witty and incisive. We'd like to think that the horoscope gimmick is only for the most credulous - the truth is that astrology books far outsell astronomy.
In the antepenultimate chapter, The Genetic Book of the Dead, Dawkins paints a picture of our genomes as a warehouse of coded information that, in an indirect sense, describe the world in which our ancestors lived. `We are digital archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas; walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days. You could spend a lifetime reading in this library and die unsated by the wonder of it.' If that doesn't instill the poetry in science, what will?
The evolution of the human brain is the topic of the final chapter. Lesser writers on this subject often produce convoluted and highly descriptive texts. Here again, Dawkins effortlessly mingles the cerebral and the poetic.
There is perhaps a token of irony in the fact that Newton spent large portions of his life obsessed with the ocult and alchemy. Newton, regardless of his unparalled achievements, was a man of the seventeenth century however. Today we have no excuse for indulging in astrology, telepathy, gods, or ghosts. We don't need these fallacies anymore. Science moves forward, piling on the evidence, explaining the rainbows.
on 20 January 1999
If, like me, you've ever thought science too cold and clever and have been secretly glad that other people also don't trouble to understand it, this book will unfold as such an exhilarating shock. Science is magnificent!
It can show you how to think - and clearly too - in ways you'd never imagine and disarm you in moments when you least expect it. This is not the laboratory, this is life.
And Mr Dawkins' passion for it is thoroughly infectious, because sincere. He writes effortlessly and is irresistibly stylish. For his poetry there is no other name.
on 3 December 2008
This book is a good choice for anyone who has read The God Delusion and is interested in reading more by Dawkins. Written a few years prior to TGD, it remains up-to-date (arguably more relevant than ever) and may serve as a useful bridge for anyone eventually looking to delve into Dawkins' more scientific titles.
Critics of Dawkins often like to portray him as arrogant, hectoring (or that other old chestnut: 'shrill') and overly absorbed with the cold clinical application of the scientific method. On the contrary, Dawkins comes across as genial, honorable and good-natured, and this book - essentially a non-religious celebration of life and the scientific method - displays his warmth and humanity in bucketloads as it reveals how a greater understanding of science enlarges - rather than diminishes - our sense of wonder.
Truly enlightening, beautifully written and highly recommended - especially to his detractors!