Laura Parker journeys through Prof Al-Khalili's eight lessons.
We all love a rainbow. It gives us a childlike thrill, and a sense of wonder that poets such as Wordsworth and Keats have tried to capture. “My heart leaps up when I behold/ A rainbow in the sky:” wrote the former.
But if a quantum physicist explained a rainbow to you in scientific terms, would that dull its magic? Not if that someone were Jim Al-Khalili, the science broadcaster and author of The Joy of Science.
In the book’s eight ‘lessons’, he sets out to enlighten and empower us with his way of thinking.
Here, in less scientific and more random order, are some things that I, a non-scientist, grabbed from this accessible book.
1. Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask basic ones. The simplest queries can be “the most deeply insightful”
2. Make an effort. “We are all capable of digesting more complicated ideas than we give ourselves credit for.” He gives us an example: it’s all about the speed of light. It’s brilliant. Trains, mirrors, space. I was with him all the way, but you’d still be better off asking him about it than me.
3. Keep making an effort. “Some ideas and concepts take longer to grasp and that is OK.”
4. Challenge ignorance. The book, inevitably, is informed by Covid-19, and here he gives us the tools to challenge anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. “When was the last time a conspiracy theorist uncovered a real conspiracy?”
5. Be polite. Don’t “accuse another person of ignorance or stupidity…instead examine where they have obtained their evidence.”
6. Examine our own motives. He discusses how we surround ourselves with views that only reinforce our own, and how we should question this.
7. Doubt is strength. People trained in science see uncertainty as a strength. He shows why this can cause confusion in the media. And how to deal with our own uncertainty.
8. It’s OK to be wrong. “If you are wrong, be brave and admit it, and value others who have the courage and integrity to do the same.”
In summary, thinking like a scientist:
- is a reliable way of understanding how the world works.
- is an enabler. Science is a means by which we can survive, and a way we can live more contented lives.
- helps to make better decisions for ourselves and those we care about.
- enriches us, “giving us a way to see the world beyond our limited senses, to see though a lens of deeper understanding and be part of a world of light and colour, of beauty and truth.”
We are back to rainbows. Jim reveals to us, scientifically, their magic. How we need to understand on seeing a rainbow that it does not exist in any particular part of the sky, that it is an intangible interaction between the natural world and our eyes and our brains. No two people see the same rainbow. The one we see is made from those rays of light that have entered our eyes alone. So each of us experiences his or her own unique rainbow, created by nature for us, and us alone.
So take that, Wordsworth, Keats* et al.
*Keats famously complained lightheartedly that his contemporary Isaac Newton had "Destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.”