Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder

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Overview

Did Newton "unweave the rainbow" by reducing it to its prismatic colors, as Keats contended? Did he, in other words, diminish beauty? Far from it, says acclaimed scientist Richard Dawkins; Newton's unweaving is the key to much of modern astronomy and to the breathtaking poetry of modern cosmology. Mysteries don't lose their poetry because they are solved: the solution often is more beautiful than the puzzle, uncovering deeper mysteries. With the wit, insight, and spellbinding prose that have made him a ...

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Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder

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Overview

Did Newton "unweave the rainbow" by reducing it to its prismatic colors, as Keats contended? Did he, in other words, diminish beauty? Far from it, says acclaimed scientist Richard Dawkins; Newton's unweaving is the key to much of modern astronomy and to the breathtaking poetry of modern cosmology. Mysteries don't lose their poetry because they are solved: the solution often is more beautiful than the puzzle, uncovering deeper mysteries. With the wit, insight, and spellbinding prose that have made him a best-selling author, Dawkins takes up the most important and compelling topics in modern science, from astronomy and genetics to language and virtual reality, combining them in a landmark statement of the human appetite for wonder.
This is the book Richard Dawkins was meant to write: a brilliant assessment of what science is (and isn't), a tribute to science not because it is useful but because it is uplifting.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A spellbinding storyteller." The New York Times

"Brilliance and wit." The New Yorker

"An extended rebuttal - not so much by argument as by radiant example - of perennial anti-science convictions. Few among us are better qualified for the job. If any recent writing about science is poetic, it is this." The Wall Street Journal

"Like an extended stay on a brain health-farm . . .You come out feeling lean, tuned and enormously more intelligent." The Times of London

Timothy Ferris
....[T]he first thing to be said....is that [Dawkins] is to be congratulated for his courage in attempting it....Sadly, the spirit of wonder is kept waiting off stage during much of the first two-thirds of the book....Fortunately...Dawkins...settles down to ...convey each scientific idea with an affection that brings out its beauty and clarity and makes the reader feel ...as if he had thought of it himself.
The New York Times Book Review
Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
No one can make science so exciting, so interesting or so clear.
Spectator
San Francisco Chronicle
A love letter to science, an attempt to counter the perception that science is cold and devoid of aesthetic sensibility. . . rich with metaphor, passionate arguments, wry humor. . . and unexpected connections, Dawkin's prose can be mesmerizing.
From The Critics
Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, expresses the virtues of a rational view of existence and captures the poetry of science in this collection of scientific essays. Dawkins' conclusions imply that the mysteries of reality are fully within our grasp. This view is the opposite of those who claim that the universe will forever remain a question mark and that perception is reality. Though Dawkins lacks an explicit philosophy, he achieves a rare feat in popular scientific literature: He blasts the myth that knowledge robs reality of its wonder. The Oxford University scientist writes: "I believe that an orderly universe, one indifferent to human preoccupations, in which everything has an explanation even if we still have a long way to go before we find it, is a more beautiful, more wonderful place than a universe tricked out with capricious ad hoc magic." Among his targets: environmentalism, Stephen Jay Gould, Margaret Mead and O.J. Simpson. This book invites readers to marvel at the known the same way we're taught to marvel at the unknown. — Scott Holleran
Library Journal
In this discussion of scientific methodology, Dawkins quotes liberally--not fellow scientists, but poets like Keats, Coleridge, and Dickinson. The message is clear: scientific thinking may be structured and rigorous, but it never lacks a fundamental sense of beauty and wonder. (LJ 12/98)
Timothy Ferris
....[T]he first thing to be said....is that [Dawkins] is to be congratulated for his courage in attempting it....Sadly, the spirit of wonder is kept waiting off stage during much of the first two-thirds of the book....Fortunately...Dawkins...settles down to ...convey each scientific idea with an affection that brings out its beauty and clarity and makes the reader feel ...as if he had thought of it himself.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Dawkins takes to heart his title of Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford in this thoughtful exegesis on the nature of science and why its detractors are all wrong. More with pity than anger, he takes Keats to task for faulting "cold philosophy" for unweaving the rainbow in the long poem "Lamia." On the contrary, Dawkins observes, Newton's use of a prism to split white light into the spectrum not only led to our understanding of how rainbows form in raindrops, but enabled astronomers to read the make-up of stars. Dawkins devotes a few chapters to debunking astrology, magic, and clairvoyance, arguing that, as rational adults, we need to be critical about ideas. This notion serves him handily in chapters on coincidence: He explains the exacting calculations of probabilities to show that coincidences aren't so unusual. Yet people have a penchant for finding patterns where there are none, which leads Dawkins also to address superstitions—the class of errors known as false positives and false negatives—and a wealth of cultural practices from rain dances to human sacrifice. He takes to task what he calls bad poetic science, in which he includes the theories of his rival Stephen Jay Gould in relation to what Gould sees as the three perennial questions in paleontology: Does time have a directional arrow? Do internal or external forces drive evolution? And does evolution occur gradually or in jumps? The spleen's so heavy here that one can anticipate a debate, if not a duel. Final chapters provide him with a platform for reweaving the rainbow, enlarging on his earlier themes and metaphors in relation to memes, genes, and evolution. Thespeculative writing here is less rooted in complex gene analysis than in philosophy of the Dennett school. A sharp mind is much in evidence, delighting in exposing fraud, providing instruction, baiting a colleague, and indulging in his own high-wire acts of evolutionary dreaming.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618056736
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 405,958
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins taught zoology at the University of California at Berkeley and at Oxford University and is now the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, a position he has held since 1995. Among his previous books are The Ancestor's Tale, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, and A Devil's Chaplain. Dawkins lives in Oxford with his wife, the actress and artist Lalla Ward.

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Read an Excerpt

We can get outside the universe. I mean in a sense of putting a model of the universe inside our skulls. Not a superstitious, small-minded, parochial model, filled with ghosts and hobgoblins, magic and spirits. A big model, worthy of the reality that regulates, updates, and tempers it. A powerful model capable of running on into the future and making accurate predictions of our destiny and that of our world. We are alone among animals in foreseeing our end. We are also alone in being able to say, before we die: Yes, this is why it was worth coming to life in the first place.
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Table of Contents

Preface
1 The Anaesthetic of Familiarity 1
2 Drawing Room of Dukes 15
3 Barcodes in the Stars 38
4 Barcodes on the Air 66
5 Barcodes at the Bar 83
6 Hoodwink'd with Faery Fancy 114
7 Unweaving the Uncanny 145
8 Huge Cloudy Symbols of a High Romance 180
9 The Selfish Cooperator 210
10 The Genetic Book of the Dead 235
11 Reweaving the World 257
12 The Balloon of the Mind 286
Selected Bibliography 314
Index 325
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 20 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 13, 2011

    On my top favorite list

    I recommend this book to anyone who apprieciates scientific wonder over superstition. I really enjoyed this book and the feeling of awe it gave me, I compared it to staring up at the stars at night and feeling insignificant compared to the grand universe. Dawkins expands the readers view of the universe in terms of time, and in small matters like photons and particles, over to genetics, and up to stars from across the universe. To understand what really causes a rainbow in the sky is so much more enlightening than a Sunday school myth.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 21, 2011

    beautiful book

    Proof that one need not tap into the ' mystical', to find an even larger appreciation of the ' world around us'.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 21, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Unweaving Dawkins

    As stated in the book, Isaac Newton had been criticized for destroying the beauty of the rainbow by removing its mystery...by unweaving it. Richard Dawkins strikes back at this notion, claiming that greater beauty, and greater appreciation for that beauty, is found in understanding, not ignorance. The world becomes more wonderful for knowing how it works, not less. He even points out so many things that unweaving the rainbow lead to...that we can to "see" more than just the visible spectrum of light, using the unseen to our advantage and beauty. Music is transmitted through the air via radio waves, for instance. The ultimate conclusion of this book is that, while the processes of science might be dispassionate (and rightfully so), but what comes from it is an increased sense of wonder and joy.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 2, 2010

    Puts science in the light that it deserves.

    Science is beautiful and enlightening. This book helps you see why.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 5, 2009

    I give it a ... meh

    I found that this book had some very interesting facts, which made me want keep reading. But I also saw Dawkins complaining a lot of the time. When he just put raw facts in there that is when I enjoyed it the most, but when he started taking sides on subjects it was less enjoyable. He seemed almost contradicting with some of his statements. He told you to think for yourself, but then told you what to think in other parts. I give this book a 3/5. Nerds like me would enjoy it, but his rants are a definite turn off.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2013

    Is my understandding of this th.e same as writer or other reader?

    Et fitana!!!

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