Richard Dawkin’s Unweaving the Rainbow: Science Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder is on my active reading docket. The book has been around for a while (published in 1998), but it’s proving to be a most enjoyable discovery as I continue to read it. So far, I concur with complete reviews’ take on the book. It is a marvelous paean to the majesty and artistry of science. Dawkins’ sense of wonder very much resonates with my own – that feeling of transcendence when I look at light shining through green leaves or the transformations of calculations that are revealed as a colorful abstract collection of molecules on a computational chemist’s monitor screen.
Dawkins derives the title of the book from John Keats’ poem, Lamia. In the opening paragraph of “Barcodes in the Stars” in Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins recounts a gathering in 1817 at the studio of artist Benjamin Haydon:
In December 1817 the English painter and critic Benjamin Haydon introduced John Keats to WIlliam Wordsworth at dinner in his London studio, together with Charles Lamb and others of the English literary circle. On view was Haydon’s new painting of Christ entering Jerusalem, attended by the figures of Newton as a believer and Voltaire as a skeptic. Lamb, drunk, upbraided Haydon for painting Newton, “a fellow who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle.” Newton, Keats agreed with Lamb, had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours. “It was impossible to resist him,” said Haydon, “and we all drank ‘Newton’s health, and confusion to mathematics.'”
Three years after this gathering, Keats wrote Lamia and within this long poem, he laments the “unweaving of the rainbow” by science:
From John Keats’ (1795-1821) Lamia, part II.
… Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine–
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.
Dawkins deftly proceeds to unravel and re-weave the rainbow in “Barcodes in the Stars” and closes the chapter with a selection from James Thomson’s (1700-1748) ode to Sir Isaac Newton.
Ev’n Light itself, which every thing displays,
Shone undiscover’d, till his brighter mind
Untwisted all the shining robe of day;
And, from the whitening undistinguish’d blaze,
Collecting every ray into his kind,
To the charm’d eye educ’d the gorgeous train
Of parent colours. First the flaming red
Sprung vivid forth; the tawny orange next;
And next delicious yellow; by whose side
Fell the kind beams of all-refreshing green.
Then the pure blue, that swells autumnal skies
Ethereal played; and then, of sadder hue,
Emerg’d the deepen’d indigo, as when
The heavy-skirted evening droops with frost;
While the last gleamings of refracted light
Died in the fainting violet away.
These, when the clouds distil the rosy shower,
Shine out distinct adown the wat’ry bow;
While o’er our heads the dewy vision bends
Delightful, melting on the fields beneath.
Myriads of mingling dyes from these result,
And myriads still remain–infinite source
Of beauty, ever flushing, ever new.
Did ever poet image aught so fair,
Dreaming in whisp’ring groves by the hoarse brook?
Or prophet, to whose rapture heaven descends?
Ev’n now the setting sun and shifting clouds,
Seen, Greenwich, from thy lovely heights, declare
How just, how beauteous the refractive law.
Those last six lines made my old glazzies get a little misty. Dammit.
Here’s the video of Charlie Rose’s interview of Richard Dawkins around the time that Unweaving the Rainbow was published. The whole of the clip is about an hour in length, but the Dawkins interview encompasses the first 15 minutes or so.