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

"It is my thesis that the spirit of wonder which led Blake to Christian mysticism, Keats to Arcadian myth and Yeats to Fenians and fairies, is the very same spirit that moves great scientists; a spirit which, if fed back to poets in scientific guise, might inspire still greater poetry." -- p. 27
Early in 1996 Richard Dawkins wrote a review of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World for the London Times. In his concluding paragraph he wrote "I wish I had written The Demon-Haunted World." After reading the first few chapters I thought Dawkins may be trying to make his wish come true. The book does delve into many areas that Sagan doesn't touch, but if you only read certain portions you will come away with the impression that this is The Demon-Haunted World Part 2.

Dawkins begins by explaining how science, rather than being cold and unpoetic as some claim, allows for, and in fact should encourage and foster, art, poetry, wonder, and a general zest for life. In the subsequent chapters he settles into a routine of 'unweaving' several 'rainbows' to show how nature can be more exciting when we understand it than when we simply write things off to supernatural causes or otherwise use ignorance as our guide through life. The items unwoven (albeit briefly and superficially in most cases) include rainbows themselves, astronomy, sound, light, DNA, 'psychics and clairvoyants', genetics, and possible causes for humans evolving relatively large brains. The section on DNA concludes with the following suggestion:

"The case of DNA fingerprinting suggests that lawyers would be better lawyers, judges better judges, parliamentarians better parliamentarians and citizens better citizens if they knew more science and, more to the point, if they reasoned more like scientists." (p. 113)
For those who are already skeptics, much of the book will come across as common sense. Many of us already know that "we habitually inflate the impressiveness of coincidence in order to make a good story" (p. 149). Not everyone has grasped this picture though so I suppose they are the primary targets.

Chapters 8 and 9 turn to critiquing other scientists--authors of 'bad poetic science' in Dawkins' words. Those include Frans de Waal, Margaret Mead, and Stephen Jay Gould. In the case of Gould, Dawkins does more to criticize other authors who have read too much into Gould or who just aren't as careful with their choice of words as they should be than he does to actually rip Gould to shreds. Gould's biggest problem is that he leaves the door too far open for his words to be misinterpreted. Dawkins' own wording sometimes comes across a little too harsh or strong. The one thing that is for sure is the bare facts themselves are what people need to rely upon--not the opinions, interpretations, and speculations of scientists and reporters.

Overall, Unweaving the Rainbow is a very good book if you haven't read him before. Those with a science background may be bored by some of the topics discussed. Dawkins' prose is clear and enjoyable as usual. I suspect that those that need to read this book the most will be the least likely to actually listen to Dawkins. This is unfortunate as the world is in need of more people filled with the wonder of reality rather than the fixations of childhood fantasies. Grab the memes this book contains and spread them around.

"You could spend a lifetime reading in this ancient library and die unsated by the wonder of it." -- p. 256
from the publisher:
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 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 mystery. (The Keats who spoke of "unweaving the rainbow" was a very young man, Dawkins reminds us.)

With the wit, insight, and spellbinding prose that have made his books worldwide bestsellers, Dawkins addresses the most important and compelling topics in modern science, from astronomy and genetics to language and virtual reality, and combines them in a landmark statement of the human appetite for wonder.

This is the book that Richard Dawkins was meant to write: a brilliant assessment of what science is (and what it isn't), a tribute to science "not because it is useful (though it is), but because it is uplifting, in the same way as the best poetry is uplifting."

"We can get outside the universe. I mean in the 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." -- from Unweaving the Rainbow

"The way Dawkins writes about science is not just a brain-tonic. It is more like an extended stay on a brain health-farm, complete with the mental equivalents of sun-beds, aerobics and intensive carrot-juice diet. You come out feeling lean, tuned and enormously more intelligent." -- John Carey Sunday Times

"We need to replace the automatic credulity of childhood with the constructive scepticism of adult science." -- p. 143