“Keats complained that Newton had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by explaining it. By more general implication, science is poetry’s killjoy, dry and cold, cheerless, overbearing and lacking in everything that a young Romantic might desire.” This is how Professor Richard Dawkins states the prosecution’s case, in extreme and even caricatured terms, so that he can demolish it comprehensively. To be fair to him, the case against science was stated in various idiosyncratic ways by many men of letters ever since modern science began its ascent about 200 years ago. Richard Dawkins is a master of the polemic and uses both the rapier and the bludgeon to counter the charge. He has written a passionately argued book that tries to refute Keats’ complaint about Newton in particular and science and scientists in general. In his long poem ‘Lamia’ Keats wrote:
‘Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy? …
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow...’
Dawkins brings marvellous arguments to make his point, which is that science is enlightening and, if anything, enhances our capacity to appreciate the beauty that is all around us. He hopes that poets could better use the inspiration provided by science and scientists, in turn, could reach out to ‘the constituency ’ that he identifies with poets that must, of course, include the world at large. “It is a central tenet of this book, ” he says, “that science, at its best, should leave room for poetry.” The book is littered with fine poetry, including several by Keats himself. The curiosity and sense of wonder that drove the astronomers to look for new planets was captured exactly by Keats in his famous sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ (‘then I felt as some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims to his ken’). Science has its proper share of poetic wonder and the thrill of discovery that is not fundamentally different from artistic creation. Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist, conceded that an artist friend of his might have had better-developed aesthetic sensibilities to appreciate the beauty of a flower. “However, ” he said, “the beauty that is there for you is also available for me. But I see a deeper beauty that isn’t so readily available to others. I can see the complicated interactions of the flower. The colour of the flower is red. Does the fact that the plant has colour mean that it evolved to attract insects? This adds a further question. Can insects see colour? Do they have an aesthetic sense? And so on. I don’t see how studying a flower ever detracts from its beauty. It only adds.” Dawkins approvingly quotes ‘the great Indian astrophysicist S. Chandrasekhar’, who defined beauty as ‘that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound’.
Dawkins points out that, right from the time of Wordsworth and even earlier, writers did appreciate the role science played in people’s lives and found many ways to appreciate science and scientists. Pope’s lines -
‘God said “let Newton be,”
And all was light’
spring to mind. James Thomson’s memorial to Newton contain the lines,
‘...Even light itself, which everything
Shone undiscovered, till his brighter mind
Untwisted all the shining robe of day…
Even now the setting sun and shifting
How just, how beauteous the refractive law.’
Taking his cue from the title, Dawkins really does ‘unweave the rainbow’ by explaining how light waves travel. The chapter headings are themselves elegantly chosen and, on reflection, indeed enlightening: ‘Barcodes in the stars’ (light), ‘Barcodes on the air’ (sound), ‘Barcodes at the bar’ (forensic science), ‘Reweaving the world’ (virtual reality) and ‘The Balloon of the Mind’ (how the human brain evolved). In these exhilarating chapters, Dawkins takes us on a journey which covers such diverse areas as genetic imprinting (he uses the term ‘DNA barcodes’), light and sound waves, virtual reality, how the brain cells connected to vision work and the explosive power of the human brain even when compared to that of a modern computer. In between, he takes time off to critically examine the effect superstition, astrology and the paranormal have had on modern life. Understandably, he is distressed to find not only that these ‘spurious’ areas are having a field time with the media and with the general public, but that respectable writers from the humanities seem to be science-illiterate and, what is worse, have contempt for science. The net result of all this is that the intelligent layman is gloriously and even proudly ignorant of science and all the fascinating areas it has uncovered over the last century or two. While considering Blake, D.H. Lawrence and Yeats, Dawkins wistfully asks: “Did prejudice against reason weigh down the wings of poesy?”
The author comes down rather heavily on some heavyweights among scientists themselves. They commit what he calls the sin of ‘bad poetic science’ by which their often good poetic writing masks bad science. James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis are chided for the Gaia hypothesis being taken to absurd lengths not perhaps by themselves but by green activists. In another context, Dawkins takes on his bete noire and fellow-evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and accuses him of using his beguiling and seductive prose to promote wrong-headed hypotheses and causing confusion among the less informed. Perhaps in the particular examples he brings up Dawkins is right, but surely he cannot object to the following lines of Gould’s:
“I am especially wary of arguments that find kindness, mutuality, synergism, harmony—the very elements that we strive mightily, and so often unsuccessfully, to put into our lives—intrinsically in nature... There are no shortcuts to moral insight. Nature is not intrinsically anything that can offer comfort or solace in human terms—if only because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. They reside, like the Kingdom of God, within us—the most difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus.”
I find this kind of writing inspiring, liberating and enlightening. I am sure Dawkins would approve of this world view as a classic example of good science and good poetry coming together.
Reading this book, one understands why the author was made the first Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is lucid, well-informed and forthright while expressing his views. Perhaps he pushes his ultra-Darwinist views (Gould calls him a ‘Darwinian fundamentalist’) to extremes and appears to promote a determinist (selfish gene) view of evolution. But he is a great explainer of science to the layman. In an earlier book Dawkins wrote: “Explaining is a difficult art. You can explain something that your reader understands the words; and you can explain something so that the reader feels it in the marrow of his bones (italics mine). To do the latter, it sometimes isn’t enough to lay the evidence before the reader in a dispassionate way. You have to become an advocate and use the skill of the advocate’s trade.” What a confession for a scientist to make, to have to admit that there are different levels of understanding!
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
[T.S. Elliot, Little Gidding]