MY CHOICE A book that gives one a different view of life. BHARATH PALLE
When Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins came out with his most recent work, The God Delusion, it caused, and indeed as the title shows that it is at no great pains to avoid, an enormous controversy. To be fair, the name Dawkins has always caused very violent reactions to very different people: theists, who shudder, brand him (figuratively speaking) as a heretic and usually wish him a merry roasting in their carefully designed hell; atheists, who compare him with other heretics like Bertrand Russell who have contributed a great deal to the understanding and appreciation of science.
But, as much as I would love to write about The God Delusion, I realise it would be impossible to do so without hiring a professional bodyguard or at the very least, a very professional plastic surgeon, so I will confine myself to another personal favourite among his works: Unweaving the Rainbow I belong to the camp of his admirers, not least because of his surprising humour and wit, his capacity of invoking wonder from his readers and his love for the poet, W.B. Yeats (whom he frequently quotes) and nowhere are these talents more formidably demonstrated than in this particular work.
Unfolding the book
Unweaving the Rainbow provides a reasoned response to countering the (widespread) notion that having a scientific outlook necessarily entails having the view of life as cold, bleak and unrelenting without any purpose or joy: in a few sharp, witty and very ironic pages, he provides a clear and lively argument on how science enhances wonder and awe rather than reduces it. The title is taken from Keats’ complaint against Newton for performing the landmark experiment that launched the field of optics- the scattering of light when it passes through the prism. For Keats, this experiment destroyed the poetry of the rainbow.
For Dawkins, Keats could not be more wrong and he devotes the whole book to explain why. In the delightful early chapters (Barcodes in the Stars etc.), he literally unweaves the rainbow- explains the tremendous advances that science has made from the single, simple experiment of Newton’s- and talks about its dazzling implications- like studying the components of stars millions of light years away to discovering the age of the universe itself, and it is hard to remain subdued while reading these remarkable pages. But there is more, a lot more- for him, there is a secret poetry than lurks beneath scientific discoveries and he castigates poets and writers (among others) for their failure in not comprehending this poetry.
For instance, in the (appropriately named and very funny) chapter “Huge Cloudy Symbols of a High Romance”, he distinguishes between “good poetry” and “bad poetry” and the use of both while explaining or otherwise discussing, science. The consequences of a bad poetic understanding of science ranges from the absurd (for example, the custom of the “Dyars of Sarawak” of eating the hands and the knees of the slain in order to strengthen their own hands and knees is based their mistaken notion that there is some essence of the hand or knee which can be transmitted from person to person) to the appalling.
In the final few chapters “Reweaving the World” and “The Balloon of the Mind”, he provides a vivid and fascinating explanation of the mechanics of the brain- discussing language and intelligence and tracing the possible reasons for the manner in which they have evolved. These books will not change your life, but that is only because it is impossible for any book to do so (and those who are shamelessly indulgent with the phrase could not be more hopelessly mistaken); but they do achieve something grander-they change your perspective towards life and looking at life and there is not a higher goal that can be expected of a book.
Bharath Palle is a IIIrd year Student at Symbiosis Law College, Pune
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