Unweaving the Rainbow
(subtitled "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder") is a 1998 book by Richard Dawkins
, discussing the relationship between science
and the arts
from the perspective of a scientist
Dawkins addresses the common perception that science and art are necessarily at odds. Driven by the responses to his books The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker wherein readers resented his naturalistic world view, Dawkins felt the need to explain that, as a scientist, he saw the world as full of wonders and a source of pleasure. This pleasure was not in spite of, but rather because he does not assume as cause the inexplicable actions of a deity but rather the understandable laws of nature.
His starting point is John Keats' well-known accusation that Isaac Newton destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it. The agenda of the book is to show the reader that science does not destroy, but rather discovers poetry in the patterns of nature.
Summary of the logical arguments
The following summary of the book's arguments in favour of science does not attempt to reproduce the actual explanations of scientific phenomena (how DNA works, petwhac, etc.), which in fact form most of the text.
It is of little concern whether or not science can prove that the
ultimate fate of the cosmos
: we live our lives regardless at a "human" level, according to ambitions
which come more
naturally. Therefore, science should not be feared as a sort of cosmological
wet blanket. In fact, those in search of beauty or poetry
in their cosmology
need not turn to the paranormal
or even necessarily restrict themselves to the
: science itself, the business of unravelling mysteries, is beautiful
and poetic. (The rest of the preface sketches an outline of the book, makes
The anaesthetic of familiarity
The first chapter describes several ways in which the universe appears beautiful and
poetic when viewed scientifically. However, it first introduces an additional
reason to embrace science. Time and space
are vast, so the probability
that the reader came to be alive here and now, as opposed to another time or place,
was slim. More important, the probability that the reader came to be alive at all were
even slimmer: the correct structure of atoms
had to align in the universe.
Given how special these circumstances are, the "noble" thing to do is employ the allotted
several decades of human life towards understanding that universe. Rather than simply feeling connected with nature, one should rise above this "anaesthetic
of familiarity" and observe
the universe scientifically.
Drawing room of dukes
This chapter describes a third reason to embrace science (the first two being
beauty and duty): improving one's performance in the arts
. Science is
often presented publicly in a translated format, "dumbed down" to fit
the language and existing ideas of non-scientists. This offers a
disservice to the public
, who are capable of appreciating the beauty of the universe nearly as deeply as
a scientist can. The successful communication of unadulterated science
enhances, not confuses, the arts; after all, poets
(Dawkins' synonym for
artists -- see page 24) and scientists are motivated by a similar spirit of
wonder. We should therefore battle the stereotype
that science is difficult,
uncool, and not useful for the common person.
Studying a phenomenon, such as a flower
, cannot detract from its beauty
First, some scientists, such as Feynman
, are able to appreciate the aesthetics
of the flower while engaged in their study. Second, the mysteries which
science unfolds lead to new and more exciting mysteries; for example, botany
findings might lead us to wonder about the workings of a fly
This effect of multiplying mysteries should satisfy even those who think that
scientific understanding is at odds with aesthetics
, e.g. people who agree with
Einstein that "the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious".
(For evidence, the rest of this chapter discusses the fascinating science and
beautiful new mysteries which followed in the wake of Newton's "unweaving" of
the rainbow, i.e. his explanation of the prismatic
effects of moist air.)
Barcodes on the air
This chapter offers more evidence that science is fun and poetic, by exploring
, and low-frequency
phenomena such as pendula
Barcodes at the bar
A fourth reason to embrace science is that it can help deliver justice
court of law, via DNA fingerprinting
or even via simple statistical reasoning.
Everyone should learn the scientist's art of probability assessment, to make
Hoodwink'd with faery fancy
This chapter explores what Dawkins considers to be fallacies in astrology
visitations. Credulity and Hume
criterion are also discussed.
Unweaving the uncanny
are much more common than we may think, and sometimes,
when over-interpreted, they lead to faulty conclusions. Statistical significance tests
can help determine which patterns are meaningful.
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
Unlike "magisterial poetry" (where metaphors and pretty language are used to
describe the familiar), "pupillary poetry" uses poetic imagery to assist a
scientist's thinking about the exotic (e.g. consider "being" an electron
temporarily). Although it is useful, some authors take pupillary poetry too
far, and, "drunk
on metaphor", they produce "bad science", i.e. postulate
. This is powered by humanity's natural tendency to look for
The selfish cooperator
compete with each other, but this occurs within the context of
collaboration, as is shown with examples involving mitochondria
. Two types of collaboration are co-adaptation (tailoring
different parts of an organism, such as flower colour and flower markings), and
co-evolution (two species changing together; e.g. predator
and prey running
speeds may increase together in a sort of arms race
The body of any organism provides clues about its habitat
. The genes allow one
to reconstruct a picture of the range of ways of life that the species has
experienced; in this sense DNA would act as a palimpsestic
only its language
of encoding history
could be fully understood. Finally, the
curious genetics of cuckoos
Reweaving the world
is akin to a powerful computer
, which creates a sort of virtual reality
to model economically the environment. Neural circuitry
discussed, and a comparison is made between brains and genes: albeit
over different time
scales, both record the environment's past in order to
help the organism
make the optimal actions in the (predicted) future.
The balloon of the mind
The simultaneous explosions in hardware
of the 20th century
are together an example of what Dawkins calls "self-feeding co-evolution".
A similar event occurred over a longer time scale (millions
the minds and brains of our ancestors simultaneously improved very
rapidly. Five possible triggers of this improvement were: language, map
, and metaphors
The final two paragraphs
of The balloon of the mind
conclude by saying that human beings are the only animal
with a sense of purpose in life, and that that purpose should
be to construct a comprehensive model
of how the universe works.
The book coins an acronymical term, Petwhac (Population of Events That Would Have Appeared Coincidental). This is defined as all those events that may be considered to be a 'coincidence' if studied casually, but are both possible and statistically probable.
A way to get an idea of how to use the petwhac is as follows. Say you see a friend from school you have not seen for years when you are on holiday (an unlikely event); before saying its fate or coincidence, think what is in the petwhac (meeting any friend from the same time period at least, friends of your brothers, sisters or parents, old flames, neighbours, teachers, someone who worked in the local chip-shop.. the list is probably endless, and all would seem coincidental). In short: the bigger the petwhac, the stronger case you have to avoid ascribing something to fate or coincidence.
Dawkins offers several examples of petwhacs in the book, two of which are the bedside clock of a woman (Richard Feynman's wife) stopping exactly when she died, and a psychic who stops the watches of his television audience.
The first is explained by the fact that the clock had a mechanical defect which made it stop when tilted off the horizontal, which is what a nurse did to read the time of death in poor lighting conditions. The matter of the watches, in Dawkins' own words, is explained thus —
If somebody's watch stopped three weeks after the spell was cast, even the most credulous would prefer to put it down to chance. We need to decide how large a delay would have been judged by the audience as sufficiently simultaneous with the psychic's announcement to impress. About five minutes is certainly safe, especially since he can keep talking to each caller for a few minutes before the next call ceases to seem roughly simultaneous. There are about 100,000 five-minute periods in a year. The probability that any given watch, say mine, will stop in a designated five-minute period is about 1 in 100,000. Low odds, but there are 10 million people watching the show. If only half of them are wearing watches, we could expect about 25 of those watches to stop in any given minute. If only a quarter of these ring in to the studio, that is 6 calls, more than enough to dumbfound a naïve audience. Especially when you add in the calls from people whose watches stopped the day before, people whose watches didn't stop but whose grandfather clocks did, people who died of heart attacks and their bereaved relatives phoned in to say that their 'ticker' gave out, and so on.
Dawkins defends his choice of the word "population" by writing "Population may seem an
odd word, but it is the correct statistical term.", adding "I won't keep using capital letters because they stand so unattractively on the page."
- Charlie Rose, April 11, 2000 - video interview with Dawkins about the book.
- Dawkins's Rainbow Reduces Science to Truth, Beauty—and Fantasy - reviewed by Robert N. Proctor, American Scientist.
- Richard Dawkins: The man who knows the meaning of life review from The Guardian.
- How, Why and Wow! - reviewed by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, The Spectator.
- The Beauty of Applied Science - review from Mail on Sunday.
- There is Poetry in Science - reviewed by Melvyn Bragg, The Observer.
- Everyone a Scientist - reviewed by John Gribbin, The Literary Review.
- The Poetry of Science - reviewed by Sam Hurwitt, The San Francisco Examiner.
- The Science of Selfishness - reviewed by Andrew Brown, Salon.
- Nature of Science: A Wondrous and Poetic Spectrum reviewed by Charles M. Vest, Science.
- Frauds! Fakes! Phonies! - reviewed by Timothy Ferris, The New York Times.
- Unweaving the Rainbow reviewed by Paul R. Gross, ''The Wall Street Journal.
- Finding Awe, Reverence, and Wonder in Science - reviewed by Kendrick Frazier, Skeptical Inquirer.
- Unweaving the Rainbow - review from The Complete Review.
- The Scientist As Poet - Arthur Winfree's 1964 essay