Re: Science, Knowledge, Understanding, Art and Wonder

Subject: Re: Science, Knowledge, Understanding, Art and Wonder
From: Lisa Whistlecroft (
Date: Sat Sep 10 2005 - 07:18:49 EDT


All that follows is only my opinion. I have commented on some of
Kevin's questions in an order different from the one in which he
wrote them.

>Why do poets and artists so often disparage science in their work?

Is it insecurity, grown from ignorance? I'm sure it is exactly
the same as the way that some engineers I know are - or pretend to be
- proud that they can't spell, can't write elegantly and know nothing
about anything they deem to be 'arty'. It's easier to derogate than
to admire, if you are insecure in your own self (though not in your
expertise in your own narrow field).

>At a meeting of romantic poets in 1817, Keats suggested that Newton
>had destroyed the wonder of the rainbow by explaining how it came

But can someone who is a literature/philosophy scholar tell us if he
meant it or was trying to provoke debate? I know nothing about Keats!

>He [Dawkins] shows how the scientific "unweaving of rainbows" has
>always lead to other amazing and wonderful mysteries.

I haven't read the book, but for me, that is a secondary (derivative)
effect. That says that 'solving' one mystery leads to more beautiful
ones to be solved - like some sort of mythical quest. Surely,
understanding something makes that particular something more
wonderful to contemplate?

>In "Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for
>Wonder", Richard Dawkins provides an elegant defense of his
>contention that knowing how something works in no way diminishes its

For me, knowing how something works has almost always enhanced my
pleasure and wonder at it. The difference between when that is so
and when it is not is when the 'thing' was a 'trick'.

What I mean is this: understanding how a chrysalis turns into a moth
increases the wonder of both - but understanding how a stage magician
turns a handkerchief into a dove only increases one's respect for the
performer, not one's wonder or understanding of either silk or birds!

What this leads me on to (back to?) is a question. Does this imply
that the artists who mock science and the scientists who mock art
somehow see the other discipline as a (cheap?) trick? That makes the
criticism even more stupid, I think - and very sad.

<different topic alert>

As a postscript, I find it interesting that it should be Dawkins who
says understanding leads to greater wonder and more mysteries when he
is reputedly such a strong proponent of the theory that there is no
ultimate mystery or ultimate solution or god. Surely simple logic
says that if greater understanding leads to greater wonder and
pleasure then at the point where we understand the last mystery we
should enter a state of bliss!!! (And I'm only half flippant here!)

</different topic alert>

Lisa (science trained, albeit some time ago!)

PS Language is a strange and powerfully ambiguous thing - is the
quote at the end of my current signature really an insult to the
other sciences? I've just come back from a conference where Etienne
Wenger was the closing speaker. The point of his talk was not that
communities of practice exist (he proposed that in 1989) but that we
are actually also enriched by our understanding of how we don't
belong to other C's of P - our knowing that there are things we have
chosen not to pursue or never had the opportunity to pursue - and
that these have their own languages to define their knowledge.

Lisa Whistlecroft               
Lancaster University, UK.                   Tel: +44 (0) 1524 593776


All science is either physics or stamp collecting. (Ernest Rutherford)

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