Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnoméd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.
—John Keats, from “Lamia”
In Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, the scientist Richard Dawkins addresses the accusation that science somehow robs wonder from the world. He points to John Keats’ complaint about Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with refracted light, for example, and argues that a rainbow is no less beautiful just because we know how it comes into being.
Having myself had the occasion twice to see a triple rainbow span a dark shelf of eastern clouds as the sun sank westward, I’d have to agree. Beauty, grandeur, and enormity remain beautiful, grand, and enormous even when a thing is understood. What’s more, sometimes understanding actually adds to our amazement. Consider, for example, the sweep of stars in a night sky. Having an idea of just how truly far away they are—that what we see as constellations are not flat, but rather consist of suns at different distances from us—adds to the wonder of it all, just as knowing that the moon is just over a light-second distant adds to my awe.
I do sympathize with Keats, however, in that science “empt[ies] the haunted air.” There was a time when I could look upon a cloud-veiled moon with a deliciously spooky shiver. I grew up on monster movies such as the Hammer Dracula pictures and Universal Studios’ The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney as poor, doomed Larry Talbot. Recently, I went to see the Wolf Man remake, featuring Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it—even admired it—walking outside afterward to view the full moon just didn’t have the same effect. Rationalism has killed my boyhood monsters…and I miss them.
The only one remaining is that unwelcome bitch who lurks in the mirror when the lights are off, waiting to claw out my eyes. Somehow she got her hooks into my soul in second or third grade, and she just won’t let go. Science tells me that a mirror is just a flat piece of glass; she insists it’s a window. As terrible as it sounds, maybe some part of me wants to believe her.
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