Rainbow Synthesis


When Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity ‘toppled’ Sir Isaac Newton’s model which was dominant since the Renaissance, it led to a new resurgence — that the fundamentals of scientific discernment were not a fixed, or inflexible, set of edicts. Rather, such models were elucidations of certain composite portents reliant on societal norms, just as much as their nature in terms of reality. Hence, the analysis: scientific justification cannot be always looked upon as independent and objective.

This explains why it is never late, in any epoch, to cultivate what Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and statesman par excellence, epitomised as the ‘scientific temper’ in us all. His resounding metaphor wasn’t a sweeping generalisation of facts. It was a realistic outlook; a possibility construct too. However, to make the multifaceted thought simple, we’d cherry-pick evolutionist Richard Dawkins’ perceptive credo — that the wonders of science are not just verdicts; they also cascade opulently in our mind. Besides, the tenets of scientific thought are nothing short of our aesthetic experience. They contend with the algebra of music, or poetry, too.

Pure science is not a boring, arid, pithy, or intellectual idea, as is the popular opinion. It has its own element of prettiness, also motivation, on its whole canvas. This eclectic thought is keyed to a refined doctrine: the creation of work, or decorative body of knowledge, or what all of us, quite simply, call as science. This is also yet another reason why the likes of Dawkins take on science’s fireside chair critics head-on. To drive home the point, Dawkins formulates a motif for cultured science — a concerted inquiry that does away with unintelligent debris. Not that Dawkins succeeds in his every exposition. All the same, he delivers a notation — an earnest attempt that integrates science as fine art. In other words, the splendour of reality — or, the reality of attractiveness of science — including the fulsome understanding and expansive appreciation of not just scientific thought, but also advanced knowledge.

Dawkins’ ground-breaking book, Unweaving the Rainbow, is a case in point. It derives its name from John Keats’ famous wail on Newton’s characterisation of the rainbow into light of different wavelengths. It is also a classy elegy of Keatsian despair juxtaposed by the captivating explanation of Newtonian optics. Newton’s sophisticated prism research, in its actuality, for instance, was fittingly set to take one into cloud nine of their existence with a classy intent. As light is separated into a spectral of colours by one prism, it gets inverted into white light when deflected by the second. It is also, at the same time, one part of the spectrum that preserves its colour when passed through the second prism. This understanding influenced Newton to think that prisms don’t colour light; on the contrary, they detach light into essential sections, or wavelengths.

Dawkins uses more than a brace of such timeless concepts to delve into deeper insights: of how circular raindrops rupture and bend light, so as to allow us to witness a rainbow synthesis. There ends the assessment, because we do not yet know why a rainbow is steady even when it rains; or, why we can never reach a rainbow’s end-point. Yet, the fact remains that we celebrate such mysteries — more so, because they are vivified by our understanding of a host of elementary possibilities at work.

Dawkins knocks, in so doing, the daylights out of pseudoscience. Of what, for example, makes the likes of Uri Gellers and other so-called psychics, spoon-benders, clairvoyants, mystics, mind-readers, and others — including skewed religion, or politics without vision, as it exists today — lightweight, crowd-pulling, yet inconsequential symbols. That they cannot defend themselves with pure scientific validation, replication, or verification of percepts and/or precepts is passé. This does not distract Dawkins’ purpose which is awash with a fervent resolve; not homily. It is a mission that all of us could pursue — to replenish science with amazement. The best part is Dawkins, like most of us, is in favour of a balanced methodology — the cultivation of healthy scepticism which begins in one’s childhood.

The science of anything, that is mumbo-jumbo, has obviously no place in Dawkins’ realm — or, in our world. The idea is simple — it is a made-to-order medley that places our recognition of astonishment into the irrational or bafflement, leaving us wide-open to unwholesome and disgraceful naiveté. It explicates the necessity for a more comprehensive, or upright, artistic science. Or, pure science that has the wherewithal to sculpt great chapters, yet again, on the natural advancement of the human brain — a world where science is reflected as exquisite beauty, or allure, like no other — something that mathematician-physicist and philosopher Roger Penrose celebrates with spectacular acumen.

As Lian Zhu and Yogesh Goyal, put it in their perceptive paper, Art and Science [Embo Reports], “”In the 19th century, the Spanish neurologist and pathologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal studied brain tissue and cells of the nervous system through a microscope. His observations not only led to important scientific discoveries, which eventually won him a Nobel Prize, but also to sketches that would adorn both the pages of textbooks and the walls of New York art galleries. The medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, also known as Fibonacci, once pondered a puzzle about an idealised rabbit population. His solution was an eponymous sequence of numbers that are now widely found in dentistry to photography and music composition. Ramón y Cajal and Fibonacci were simultaneously impactful to science and art… History is rife with many more examples of scientists who were also artists and who have contributed to both science and art in unique and often unexpected ways.”

They elaborate, “The line that separates art and science in the modern age remains a superficial one; at the core, artists and scientists observe and interpret the world around them, though they may use different methods and expressions. This artificial cultural divide is prevalent in our society, but some visionaries and institutions are consciously bridging it. For instance, medical schools are beginning to incorporate art into their curriculum. In fact, there is evidence that the use of art can help medical students ‘apply their observational and interpretive skills’ and ‘accept the facts that ambiguity is inherent to art, life and clinical experience and there can be more than one answer to many questions.’ Once the need to re-establish the close connection between art and science had become apparent, other institutions began creating centres and think tanks for this purpose. Two pioneering examples are the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT and Experiments in Art and Technology — a collaboration between New York artists and scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories. This momentum benefits from a growing interest, by scientific journals and magazines, in publishing articles and dedicated issues that bring together art and science. The founding of the journal Leonardo, which publishes art and science studies, was another important step in this direction by creating a dedicated academic space for artists and scientists to collaborate and share ideas.”

Don’t you agree with it all — for science’s sake? Maybe, you sure do, so as to cultivate science in your own way — in the best manner possible — without jargon, and not what others tell you to believe one way, or the other.

So, there we are. We need to give science wholesome, also expanded thought — as many of us, including scientists and non-scientists, have done it already — and, let the lilies blossom afresh in our mind’s garden, or thoughtful space, that also connects to all the phenomena that makes science a delightful, wonderful, eloquent, and yet a fascinatingly absorbing experience and vocation.

In other words, a great voyage for our own good and the world’s good.

— First published in Madras Courier