By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein tells a story about a conversation between Robert Oppenheimer and Paul A.M. Dirac, in which Dirac, one of three scientist-inventors of quantum mechanics, began to ask poet and physicist Oppenheimer what those disciplines have in common. "In physics we try to give people an understanding of something that nobody knew before," Dirac mused, "whereas in poetry . . ." As Dirac had answered his own question, he needed no further enlightenment from his colleague. But Oppenheimer might have had to explain a little bit more to Dawkins. Both poets and physicists may have as their ultimate aim the understanding of mystery, but they come at the task by different means. An artist has the responsibility to interpret with conviction and honesty only a specific, emotional and subjective truth. As for the objective truths -- that's why God made scientists.
The fact is, there are poets who live up to Dawkins' demands for scientific accuracy -- he might love Kenneth Rexroth's "Halley's Comet," for instance -- and poets who don't: Stephen Dobyns' "Long Story," a meditation on how man became dominant ("He must want to be boss real bad," says the cat upon seeing Cain kill Abel) would no doubt rankle him to the core. But even the geologist Auden painted a personified moon as willfully avoiding jagged mountains, and time as possessing the quality of intolerance. Because art, as much as Dawkins wants it to be different, means imagining the world beyond the known and discoverable, interpreting how the world feels to us, not necessarily exactly what it is. Whatever the poet and the scientist share of the sense of wonder and the desire to explain, their ways of seeing are forever, and necessarily, at odds: One can only strive for certainty; the other thrives precisely on not really knowing for sure. By failing to respect such distinctions, Dawkins accomplishes the opposite of what he set out to do. Instead of straddling the chasm between science and art, he ends up proving just how wide it can get.
Richard Dawkins' scheduled appearance at the Los Angeles Public Library on March 9 has been canceled.
UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder By RICHARD DAWKINS | Houghton Mifflin 337 pages | $26 hardcover