seven colours, a thousand layers

I usually try to be polite on WordPress. I don’t have a go at people whose values and belief systems are very different from mine, and I try to not let those differences get in the way of enjoying a good piece of writing. But the reality is I’m a scientist, and an educator, and there are certain things that really irritate me.
The “I couldn’t do maths/physics/science at school” comments appear reasonable when simply a statement of lack of ability or interest, but are too often made with a bizarre pride. Would the people who make such comments say with as much pride “oh reading, I could never do that”?
And such comments about science and maths normalise the dismissing of it as too hard, and make it seem okay to simply give up. They are particularly damaging to young girls – there is a strong correlation between perceived need for “talent” in an area (as distinct from putting some effort in) and gender difference in participation. If you’re making that sort of comment, and you have daughters, please stop – you’re contributing to gender inequity. The reality is you don’t have to be smart to be a physicist. You have to work hard.
So, those “I could never do science/maths” comments really annoy me. But generally I just shrug and feel a bit sad for the person and what they’ve cut themselves off from.
But the really offensive comments, the ones I find it impossible to not respond to are those along the lines of “science ruins the magic”. Those comments really piss me off, as both a scientist and an educator. They 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 they just aren’t true.
One of the old standard pull-it-out-of-your-box-of-clichés complaints is that knowing how rainbows work takes away their magic.
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.
But when I look at a rainbow, 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.
I see evidence of the wave nature of light – its flight as a pair of twining, interdependent fields, caught for the tiniest instant in a water drop that slows and untwists the colours because of the interaction of those electric and magnetic fields with the electrons bound to the twitching water molecules – molecules held in a sphere because surfaces cost energy.
I know when those fields reflect back and reach my eye, the cones in my retina take them as photons – particles now, not waves; giving all or nothing – 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 allow that anyone, no matter how ignorant and how dismissive of science to say:
“look, a rainbow! how magical!”
even though they’ve actually seen almost none of the magic – just the top layer of a thousand.
Why would anyone want to not see those layer?


Filed under rants

13 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 🐇🐣😊

Comments? Feedback?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s