seven colours, a thousand layers

As a scientist, and an educator, there are certain things that really irritate me. “Science ruins the magic” comments are pretty close to the top of the list.   These sorts of comments undermine the efforts of science and maths teachers to produce a scientifically literate next generation who is capable of making informed decisions about climate, health… etc. (And do the people who make these comments complain that vaccines ruin the magic of viruses??)

One of the old standard pull-it-out-of-your-box-of-clichés complaints is that knowing how rainbows work takes away their magic.

Seriously? Does studying poetry ruin the enjoyment of a Basho haiku? Does a trained musician get less out of listening to a Beethoven symphony than someone who’s never picked up an instrument? 

Knowing how a rainbow works makes it more magical, not less, because it adds layers of wonder and appreciation, without taking anything at all away.

I see the same seven colours as anyone else.  That doesn’t, of course, mean I experience them the same way. But why assume that some vague concept of “magic” makes the qualia of those seven colours richer for you than for me?

I see the same colours, but I also see dispersion. I see long-legged red outpacing scurrying blue, because light doesn’t all travel at the same speed in anything other than vacuum. And those tiny droplets are oh, so very dense to wade through to a ray of light. That ray refracts and bends at each of the three interfaces it must confront if it is to reach my eye, because it’s not just a ray, but a wave, and it’s path is changed with every border it crosses.

And it’s not just one wave,  but a pair. A pair of twisting and twining, interdependent fields, caught for the tiniest instant in that water drop that slows and untwists the colours because of the interaction of those indivisible electric and magnetic fields with the electrons bound to the water molecules. Those twitching molecules, with their tenuous clouds of probabilistic electrons – held together in a sphere because surfaces cost energy. The laziness of the universe, the flow of everything to its lowest energy state, gives us spheres of water – not any other shape. And those spheres unplait the sunbeams…

And I know when those fields reach my eye, the cones in my retina take them as photons – particles now, not waves; giving all or nothing, there are no half measures here – where they flick a molecule’s shape to trigger a release of transmitter in the three cone types in my fovea, their response curves peaking at red, green and blue, so that, as Stoppard says, “The colours red, blue and green are real. The colour yellow is a mystical experience shared by everybody.” A shared mystical experience because of the image processing that takes place first in the retina – edge detection, motion sensing – and then in the brain – interpretation, recognition… Those flows of transmitters across synapses that allow that anyone, no matter how ignorant and how dismissive of science to say:

“look, a rainbow! how magical!”
even if they’ve actually seen only the top layer of a thousand.



Filed under rants

15 responses to “seven colours, a thousand layers

  1. You’re right. The “magic” is layered. And most of us non-scientists forget to think about it. We use our phones, we admire a bee, we marvel at a spider’s web, we have MRIs, we travel in aeroplanes and we take it all for granted. I feel responsible for starting your irritation on this occasion. My comment was not intended to be anti science but I understand how it was taken that way. I both revere science and struggle with it. And I think people like you who can take “mysterious” concepts and explain them beautifully and cogently are a huge asset to a world lost between fact and opinion. My husband is scientist through and through. Unfortunately, while at school, I failed to engage with science. I thought I wanted to be a vet so I knew science was essential. But by year 11, I had given up. I simply preferred to spend my time on English and history. These days I somewhat regret that I didn’t keep trying. But I guess that’s history.

    • It was absolutely not your post or comment that triggered this rant, and I’m really sorry you took it that way. I didn’t see your post as anti-science, quite the opposite because you were questioning why the area below the rainbow was brighter. (Basically just more light gets reflected into that area by the droplets that aren’t giving you the rainbow.)
      It was the comment by someone else that “…scientific chatter always seems to ruin the magic of the moment…” that annoyed me.
      You were coming out of the cave and looking around and asking questions, not retreating back into it like that. 😀
      And I know science isn’t for everyone. I never managed to engage with history, it seemed like just too much stuff to learn, and I regret it now because sometimes I lack context. Although my husband is a history buff so I ask him, and get the “how can you be so ignorant?” look. 😀

  2. I had one sentence in my blog that I think that other lady may have taken as an anti science comment. It said something about science moving easily between bthe magic and the mundane. I was very tired when I wrote it and I can’t even say what it meant. But, while her response horrified me, I did feel somewhat responsible for her thinking it was something I would agree with.

  3. The magic of the things we do
    The magic of the things we do
    They come from me and you
    Words we sometimes dare to write
    We fail to think them through

    About each other we have no clue
    There’s no reason to argue
    I’m here now to set things right
    Let’s try to start anew

  4. Reblogged this on DSPACE and commented:
    Could not have said it better myself, except for an ‘s’ on the very last word!

  5. science is magic is spirit is mind is the universe and its laws of creation and operation

    Kate, I really couldn’t do the math! I would actually like to get a math degree after I retire, because I would like to put in the work it takes to understand the language and music of math. For now, I must admire and respect the very smart women and men who make science their passion and vocation. Though my brain doesn’t do numbers and knots and formulae (for now), I love the science and actually understand the basics of complex concepts like general relativity and quantum mechanics and string theory and the uncertainly principle and unification theories and evolution and…….

    • I guess I’m lucky that I was adequate enough at the maths that I could pursue science to the level I wanted to. But it was always the hardest part for me, lots of work. That and memorising stuff – which there is very little of in physics as it’s mostly the same ideas over and over, just applied in different ways.
      I think I admire artists, composers and writers more than scientists, because I find it harder to imagine having that sort of skill set – to write a symphony seems much less achievable than to set up a mathematical model.

  6. Sunra Rainz

    I love this detailed description of rainbows. It doesn’t take away from the phenomenon of it for me. It just blows me away that someone managed to work it out so accurately! I agree, I also don’t agree with statements that contribute to gender inequity. It’s a totally legitimate thing to get peeved about.

    Happy Easter 🐇🐣😊

  7. Pingback: some thoughts on the utility of bunyips | anotherkatewilson

  8. Pingback: Three layers, seven colours | anotherkatewilson

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