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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.
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