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May 31 2005

Reading diary, 5/31/05: Unweaving the Rainbow

Just finished “Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder” by Richard Dawkins. (If you’re not familiar, Dawkins is the evolutionary biologist who wrote “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker.”) “Unweaving the Rainbow” is his response to people who feel that science (as opposed to spirituality or paranormalism) destroys wonder, that the scientific approach to the world is essentially nihilistic, dreary, dull, and lacking in joy, passion, or poetry. Dawkins tries to counter this view by writing about the beauty and wonder he sees in an assortment of scientific fields, and the sense of awe he experiences at the physical world and our gradually unfolding understanding of it.

Does it work? Yes and no. Dawkins is an amazing writer, excellent at making complicated scientific concepts clear to the layperson (to the educated layperson, anyway). And lots of what he writes about is fascinating, mind-opening, freaky, and even hilarious. (The bit about superstitious pigeons is still my favorite.)

But he’s definitely more of a scientist than he is a philosopher (like, duh, he *is* a scientist). He’s very successful at showing how science is useful and even enlightening; but when it comes to conveying how science can be wondrous and transcendent, he’s more hit and miss. I think he takes the awe as a given; he assumes that anyone who understands these ideas will be awestruck by their beauty and power and meaning. And alas, I’m not sure if that’s true for anyone who doesn’t already feel that way. My own response to this book was less often “I am struck dumb by the complex, beautifully balanced majesty of the physical universe,” and more often “Cool!”

Still. Dawkins is fucking brilliant, and this book rocks like Dokken. If you’ve never read Dawkins before, I’d probably start with “The Blind Watchmaker” instead (or “The Selfish Gene,” except I haven’t read that one yet). But if you have read him and yearn for more, Greta-Bob says check it out.

Books I’m currently still in the middle of:

“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
“The Forbidden Zone” by Michael Lesy
“Mutants” by Armand Marie Leroy
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” by Studs Terkel
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
“The Onion Ad Nauseum: Complete Archives Volume 14″ by the staff of The Onion
“Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections” by Mark Dunn

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