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Unweaving the Heart

Science only adds to our appreciation for poetic beauty and experiences of emotional depth
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Nineteenth-century English poet John Keats once bemoaned that Isaac Newton had “Destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.” Natural philosophy, he lamented, “Will clip an Angel’s wings/Conquer all mysteries by rule and line/Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine/Unweave a rainbow.”

Does a scientific explanation for any given phenomenon diminish its beauty or its ability to inspire poetry and emotional experiences? I think not. Science and aesthetics are complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. I am nearly moved to tears, for example, when I observe through my small telescope the fuzzy little patch of light that is the Andromeda galaxy. It is not just because it is lovely, but because I also understand that the photons of light landing on my retina left Andromeda 2.9 million years ago, when our ancestors were tiny-brained hominids. I am doubly stirred because it was not until 1923 that astronomer Edwin Hubble, using the 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson in the hills just above my home in Los Angeles, deduced that this “nebula” was actually a distant extragalactic stellar system of immense size. He subsequently discovered that the light from most galaxies is shifted toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum (literally unweaving a rainbow of colors), meaning that the universe is expanding away from its explosive beginning. That is some aesthetic science. (continue reading…)

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