“Unweaving the Rainbow”, Richard Dawkins

unweaving the rainbow by richard dawkins cover image

Richard Dawkins, author of Unweaving the Rainbow, is a controversial writer. Sometimes this is because of his content; there are people who also find his tone supercilious. I myself came to him quite pleasantly – Douglas Adams, an author whom I enjoy immensely, is a big fan, and this comes through in Adams’ own The Salmon of Doubt. I thus read Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker on Adams’ recommendation and learnt a lot; my first experience of Unweaving the Rainbow was when my brother was reading it. In fact, I think I borrowed the copy from my brother’s shelf. So I came at it feeling pretty good.

I went from it still feeling pretty good, with a deeper idea of what Dawkins is about. To be sure, the book contains a lot of magic. I think Dawkins’ writing about science has a sense of wonder and awe that is impressive. As a reader, and a science enthusiast, it engages me, draws me in, and enables me to learn more. Thanks to my old friend Richard, I got to revisit the magical Fourier transform, I have a stronger understanding of what is going on with vision, and I learnt new conceptualisations for genetic selection pressures. This was very enjoyable: I am certainly in the camp that enjoys how science enhances our understanding of the natural world.

That said, the book should have been a blog. It’s actually funny how it’s such a great example of what blogs should be, and such a poor example of what books should be. Why should it be a blog? Dawkins takes a conversational, chatty tone, that comes across as somewhat stilted in the particular medium. It’s also a decade since the book’s publication, and his contemporary references have not aged well. Further, the chapters are not well integrated. While there is a vague overall sense of the book’s being about how science makes our experience of reality better, there is a fairly dramatic shift in the book from cool scientific discussions about astronomy, acoustics, and statistics, to what is almost a polemic against what Dawkins considers to be poor writing by other science authors. In a book which purportedly has an overarching idea this doesn’t come off, whereas in a blog which made no such claim it would do fine.

In all, don’t read Unweaving the Rainbow if you haven’t previously read something by Richard Dawkins. I recommend The Blind Watchmaker. It also has tedious sections, but the tone is more convivial, and you feel like you and the author are together on a journey of exploration. In Unweaving the Rainbow, on the other hands, I felt at times as if I had a front-row seat at a haranguing. That said, if you have enjoyed what of Dawkins’ work you have experienced, this book contains more of that “science is amazing” attitude, and can increase your familiarity with the life and styles of our favourite biologist.

Rating:3/5

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