Monday, September 19, 2011

Unweaving the Rainbow


Richard Dawkins notes how poet John Keats blamed Newton for destroying the beauty of the rainbow by ‘reducing it to prismatic colors’ instead of marvelling at it in ignorant poetic bliss. 
 
After unweaving the rainbow, Dawkins delves into dizzying tangents of enthusiastic science. It's not always cohesive or easy to follow, but when I wasn’t in over my head, I was rapt. Confession: I had to check it out twice (two renewals apiece) and still wound up with overdue library fines! 

I’m curious about human behaviour, even if it is terrifically predictable (see later notes on “redundancy”) and there is a lot to glean here. We begin as children both curious and credulous (favoured to listen and obey), not testing when parents say not to swim with alligators or touch burning stoves. This key to our survival also holds a dangerous by-product: blind belief in untruths. Santa’s watching, Jesus lives, masturbation blinds.

How then do we stop being credulous and question? To keep creativity and curiosity and alive, yet not kill the cat? The exciting thing about scientists is they are willing – thrilled, even – to be proven wrong with the right evidence.

Dawkins honors poets (and prefers Keats the man over Newton), but believes in the poetry of our natural world – without laziness or poetic leaps.  If there’s a lapse in the fossil record, don’t poetically conclude the Cambrian explosion bloomed brand new species via macromutation. Perhaps the correct fossils have yet to appear?  

And about our intelligence– how did it evolve?  Did cave drawings lead to maps which led to language?  Did the rudimentary act of tossing projectiles to hit fleeing prey – anticipation and timing -– literally toss our thinking into the future?

Our brains are so small, yet able to comprehend so much in because of the economy of “redundancy”. Our brains are layered with the expected, not taking note of our every step or sight because it’s familiar. It doesn't need to pay attention. Explorers and scientists are constantly experimenting, discovering, and absorbing new stimulus. Keep traveling! Without new information it gets stagnant up there; a dead end job performed by rote.  

I learn our brains are so used to the redundant they make things up– take poetic license to fill in the blanks and maintain normalcy. In one example, Dawkins uses the hollow face mask illusion (check out a great visual here). Our brains fill in the hollow mask to make it 3D because we’re used to faces being 3D. We see what we expect to see - and that includes scary monsters in the moonlight on your curtains to virgins in your toast. To the credulous, they’re as fleshed out as that hollow face.  

I surmise this is why it’s so easy for us not to think outside the box, to be lazy and not expand, why it’s so easy to gaze at a rainbow without wondering why. It’s most likely the reason behind the human tendency to look out for evidence which supports, rather than refutes, our current belief system.

But we do evolve. Dawkins likens the human brain to technological innovation. How software reaches a critical mass that forces hardware advances. There is a self-feeding pressure to evolve, which works for everything, from technology to genes to fads to memes – anything replicating itself from brain to brain:

·      Bestseller lists
·      popular actors
·      proliferance of ridiculous rubber bracelets
·      why this video went viral at this particular moment in time
·      how that dumb “Who runs the world (girls)” song got stuck in your head

It’s curious to imagine how we might infect others with memes. There may indeed be something to the collective power of thought, wishes, prayer. If enough put it out there, the world will have no choice but to bow before popular demand. So can we please stop making war, walls and reality TV?

“Ahead of their time” individuals have infected the globe with once fringe ideas like anti- slavery, suffrage or environmental awareness. What germinated small, grew to critical mass and toppled to victory. Victor Hugo said: there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. One might add irrefutably powerful because many ideas, like the millions of sperm that tried to make you, fail. Each and every successful idea, breakthrough and revolution underwent a rigorous, unseen Darwinian selection.

How cool is that?

To put it more superficially, it’s that monologue from Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda Priestly rips into Anne Hathaway about her lumpy "blue" sweater:

This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff. 

After all this don’t you want to know more about the proverbial pile of stuff? Is ignorant appreciation (exemption) not now less fascinating than understanding the why behind the colors of the rainbow, cerulean and otherwise?

As Dawkins argues, a rainbow unwoven is even more wondrous. It’s poetry, with a glossary. 

1 comment:

Tony said...

I think your piece on Dawkins’ “Unweaving the Rainbow” was totally cool.


As you point out, the key to scientific (and human) progress is to keep asking, looking, questioning. Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, said that for a scientific hypothesis or theory to be considered “true,” it has to be “falsifiable,” by which he means testable. As long as experimental tests (using the rules of science: replicability, satisfactorily predictive of phenomena, etc.) cannot show a theory to be wrong, then it’s accepted. But as soon as new experimental data (based on observation of factual, physical results) uncovers flaws, then the theory is either totally disproved, or modified to explain the new results. You’re right, scientists love this, because the process uncovers wondrous new things.


Religious statements on the other hand are not scientific, because they cannot be disproved by experimental testing. “True believers” can’t stand to have their certainties challenged. Whereas the scientist’s function is to do just that. Look how mean and nasty some religious believers get when someone says “you can’t prove God exists.” A good scientist merely says to such a challenge, “OK, lets look at the data.”


Einstein said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious ... He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement is as good as dead...” And, “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own - a God in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty...It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive and try to humbly comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in Nature.”