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.