The romantic movement in poetry in the1800s was driven chiefly by a fierce opposition to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The poets thought science robbed the world of its beauty, and Keats expressed their view succinctly in his warning that science will “unweave a rainbow”.
Keats was referring to Newton’s experiment in which he passed white light through a prism, breaking it up into a band of colors. Since water droplets in the air also function like prisms, Newton was able to give the first scientific explanation of the rainbow.
Instead of applauding Newton for increasing our knowledge of the world, Keats assailed him of shrinking its beauty. As a science buff who has found much beauty in science, I could never understand this attitude.
If science seems to have lost its charm, it’s only because we have lost our ability to be charmed by it.
One afternoon after one of our frequent rain storms, I saw a full double rainbow stretching across the eastern sky from one point on the horizon to the other.
The sight of it sent me running inside to call Jan, and we both stood there looking up in awe. We’ve often seen double rainbows but none that were so bright and so colorful. They formed two perfect geometric curves, the secondary bow perched over the primary bow.
The colors in the bows were reversed, because the sunlight was shining under the water droplets in the secondary bow and above in the primary one.
I knew a little about rainbows, how light is refracted and reflected in the droplets, how the colors are reversed, how the bow stayed in one place while the rain was falling through it, and knowing that took nothing away from the rainbow’s beauty. Instead, the knowing only added to the enjoyment of seeing.
But it’s the knowing that people get confused about. Our sense of wonder, says Richard Dawkins, is being hijacked by purveyors of superstition, the paranormal and astrology. People seem to have some trouble distinguishing between pseudo-science and real science. Astrology is one of the chief modes of hijacking. Apparently, it’s more appealing to look up a fictional horoscope and to gaze at the actual firmament of stars.
Young wrote that the undevout astronomer is mad. It’s a bit of hyperbole, but I think he was trying to say that no one with a proper sensitivity can look at the universe and not be stirred by the wonder of it.
Newton’s simple experiment with light opened a crack in the mysteries of the universe. Discoveries multiplied. Infrared and ultraviolet light were found lying just outside the band of visible light, and the electromagnetic spectrum expanded into radio waves, microwaves, X-rays and gamma rays, all of which were used to make new discoveries about the universe.
William Wolston repeated Newton’s experiment in 1802, but this time he passed the sunbeam through a narrow slit before it hit the prism, and some dark lines appeared in the spectrum. It was later found that each element had a characteristic pattern of lines, one for helium, another for sodium, and so on.
Astronomers could now use the spectrum to study the chemical composition of stars, as well as their size, pressure and temperature.
In the 1920s Edwin Hubble went one step further. While examining light from distant galaxies, he noticed the signature lines of chemical elements were not where they were supposed to be in the spectrum. They were all shifted to the red.
The shift is explained by the doppler effect. Waves of light are stretched out when the source is moving away from us. The red shift in light from the galaxies means that they are flying away from us, and the farther away they are the faster they move.
Astronomers think the universe began in a gigantic explosion about 15 billion years ago, and debris from that explosion is still flying through space.
In the beginning there was only hydrogen gas, and the gas condensed into stars. High pressure started a nuclear reaction deep inside the stars, and the hydrogen was synthesized into a host of heavier elements.
Then some of the stars exploded, scattering the heavy elements into space. In millions of years, clouds containing those elements condensed into new stars. One of those clouds formed the sun and the solar system, which is why our planet has an abundant supply of oxygen and other heavy elements.
Without that element-making process in deep space, there would be no life on earth. The very carbon in our bones and the iron in our blood came from the stars. We are literally made of star stuff.
Newton’s unweaving the rainbow set the stage for an epic story of the universe, and it is one in which we are intimately involved. To me, that story is more exciting than any fiction.
There is beauty in science, in the compounding of knowledge, in following a trail of light through the rainbow and on out to the stars, and back to a living planet sprinkled with stardust.
It’s enough to capture the imagination of an old poet. I think even Keats would have been amazed.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living in Ellis County.