> petek, februar 17, 2006
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Richard Dawkins: Unweaving the Rainbow

"No Newton, no Einstein.
No Einstein, no ... eat me: world could've been as beautiful as it is, or perhaps it would've been even more beautiful, right? - But where would've we been?" -- Bo

Dawkins Richard: Unweaving the Rainbow. Mariner Books, April 2000. 352 pp. ISBN: 0618056734.

It was Lilit the biologist once more who initiated me into publishing this post. She was mentioning Richard Dawkins, the notorious biologist (English, theoretical, - Note 1) and popularizer (one who popularizes, or makes something seem popular, or cool, - so the cooler?) of science, on her blog, as I remembered having been reading one of his very books, Unweaving the Rainbow, which I gulped in a most hasty way, and with which I developed a deep relationship. There is no way I am letting this book off my bookshelf. It's one of the ultimate books on understanding the sexual tension between a man, or woman, and the nature, and observing the nature, so the science. I wrote the following back then and I am revisiting it here, now, and for us. (The picture on the right shows Mr. Dawkins. Isn't he handsome, a bit old /born 1941/, true, but cute.)

The book starts with Keats (the poet), who once said something like: "Hey Newton (the physicist), my friend, you destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by having dissected it into light of different wavelengths! Why did you do that, why did you dispel its mystery?"
Perhaps Keats was right, perhaps Newton really shouldn't've done so, you might say. Well then, I don't agree with you, and so doesn't Richard. I don't think Keats could've been more mistaken. Let me try and explain that in more bits.

"To live at all is miracle enough" - is a sweet line by Mervyn Peake (which sounds even sweeter in our humble Slovene: "Živeti sploh je že čudež"), and which sounds, all sweetness apart, very true to me. My big life fantasy, my deepest wish, is to follow Keats:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!

This is precisely why I decided not to stay stupid. I want to make something big out of my tiny part, before I lay myself down with a will. I want to ease my stupidity a bit. For I am pretty stupid. For a human is overwhelmingly stupid by default. Paraphrasing Douglas Adams, you just won't believe how hugely mind-bogglingly stupid he is. You may think it is stupid enough to steal in grocery and get caught, but that's just peanuts to it all.
But stupidity is bearable. We don't die because of it. Instead we attend school, try not to quit it prior to getting a degree and eventually remedy some of our retardation. However when ignorance is put on top of stupidity, the mixture gets unbearable. And people actually die of that. People are ignorant of many things. Keats for example, who was a true master of the word lore, was dead certain that the rainbow, after Newton had reduced it to the prismatic colors, would never been as beautiful as before. I agree with the last two words, people nowadays look upon the rainbow differently - as before. But as for the first part, I highly doubt Keats could've been more wrong. For unweaving the rainbow is a scholarly example of what science do best to: help us, and illuminate the poetic beauty of us living.
As for the first part, helping humanity, I can just hear you strongly disagreeing with me. But I guess you should first wake up from your dream. And try to see there are no unicorn forests around nor that there had ever been some. Civilization is the best and the only thing we know how to build. Civilization does not live in forests. It requires cities, transportation, wind, animal and fish farms so that as few as possible can produce the most. Factories produce goods and women give birth to children. And there is nothing more to it than that ... (is there?) ... goods and children that are frequently getting on our way, - whether us being slaves to the goods or children getting on our nerves. Civilization is namely the production of things nobody actually needs. But we produce them anyway, because we don't have an alternative. Just imagine some creative people who want to work, create and produce, and are really dying to do that. I wonder how many of them would actually die, had you come to them and say: "no no, no more work." I guess few would survive, if any. So a man must choose: to work or perish. This is the true reason, I believe, that the world is such as it is, and not what is wrongly believed that we don't know any better.
We know better and this is exactly what we are doing. We utilize our ever greater knowledge to make better tools, to get more out of them, to see farther and clearer, to prolong life and make everything more beautiful. Imagine a world without poetry. Could it exist? I don't think it could. We are making the world a better place, and science is helping us. It is our guide, slave and friend.
Ok, but where is the usefulness and beauty in dissecting the rainbow? Similarly as Newton humbly confessed to have been standing on the shoulders of the giants, the science has been carried on from previous achievements ever since. There is no quantum without Newton's momentum as there would be no Newton without Euclid. Science is always developing gradually, even though growth can be exponential and that sometimes breakthroughs like Newton or Einstein occur - which are exactly that, break-throughs, since they push the level of understanding a bit over the threshold of expected familiarity. And so from Newton to the science of today: quantum mechanics, electro-dynamics and technology of semi-transistors and transporting mediums, leads a contiguous chain of scientific discoveries. The chain is far from being straight but it is continuous nevertheless. Without the unweaving of the rainbow there would be no understanding of light and ultimately no optical switches either (3).
I see, and where is the beauty? You could see it by now.
I can't help myself not to say it one more time: Science makes the world a better place. It prolongs life. What reason could be better? Whether it is your personal believing that - life, true, is ever longer, but then, the list of things we get from life is also ever shorter - or just your plain inertness, which is stupidity and ignorance approximately combined, I can't really say. All I can do is express my grief, but also hope that some day you may wake up from that - anaesthetic of familiarity.


(1) As far as I understand, Richard Dawkins is an ethologist, a biologist who studies the animal behavior.

(2) As for Richard Dawkins and his writing, he denies any poetic talent for himself. Now isn't he modest, and I didn't buy that for a minute. For how can then his prose shine so brightly? It's literary crafted. And what just adds to it is that it's not fiction, but non-fiction: he doesn't talk about his thoughts but of things that are our world.

(3) What are these? Optical switches are only one of the most vital parts in the physical layer of the next generation communication networks, being woven around the globe right now. So? So, being connected to the net feels good, doesn't it? Comfortable with your ADSL connection? Just you wait for the fibre-to-the-home.

(4) The picture below shows a Caribbean Reef Squid. It can blend with their surroundings to avoid predators. It can do that with the help of chromatophores embedded in the skin, which are color changing cells (used a bit differently by chameleons also). That cell is like a tiny bag filled with ink. Thousands of such bags cover the skin of a squid. Each of these ink bags has miniature private muscles to squeeze it. In such a way the squid's nervous system can control the shape, and hence the visibility, of each ink sac. That is impressive, that should be impressive even to a chameleon, which is an amateur at the game. But hey, I've already seen that somewhere else! True, LED hoardings and LCD's display images in a similar fashion. We mimic the nature. Clumsily but with some success, and we are becoming ever better.

(5) I can not but finish these Notes with an immortal poem by William Blake from his Auguries of Innocence (c. 1803), which startled me first as all about science, but then I read that Blake wrote the poem out of his aesthetic and religious beliefs. I must say I was a bit disappointed having read that. But the poem is grand anyway. I even gave it a try and translated it in Slovene.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Uzreti svet v zrnu peska
in nebo v divji roži.
Ujeti neskončnost z dolžino korak.
in večnost v kratki uri.