Sunday, January 08, 2006

Non-fiction - "Unweaving the Rainbow"

"Unweaving the Rainbow" is a collection of essays by Richard Dawkins, subtitled "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder". The book was prompted by a poem (I think is was by Keats) which complained that Newton, by unweaving the rainbow (that is by splitting the light) somehow reduced the beauty of the natural world. Dawkins argues the opposite - the scietific explanations give us much deeper and much more wonderous view of the world. In fact there is a quote at the start of the first chapter from Mervyn Peake: "To live at all is miracle enough".

The various essays cover some implication of spectrum splitting - for light and for sound. The author provides very nice explanations of how we know the composition of stars, based on analysis of star light.

There is an essay, called "Barcodes at the Bar", which explains in detail how genetic testing is used in criminal investigations. It turns out that your genetic fingerprint is based on the DNA that lies between the genes that specify your body. The strings of junk DNA are unique for each individual. Even so, genetic testing can sometimes give a false positive. This has to do with how these tests are performed, since it is clearly inpractical to compare person's entire genome.

Several of the essays talk about debunking pseudo-science. In particular he explains the probablities behind coincidences.

I've been working through this books slowly, as I get distracted by other books. Some of the debunking stuff I've read about elsewhere, and after a while it becomes little boring to read.

Still, this is a nice book to give to someone who wants to learn more about what science is really about.


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