Get your ray gun out for English

25th March 2005 at 00:00
I wanted a CD before I had a CD player. I loved the vivid colours that appeared as the disc was turned in the light. When I did get a CD I sat with my finger through the hole, tilting, reflecting, optimising the spectrum produced from the microscopic pits and lands on its etched surface. And I enjoyed listening to it too.

A CPD group of which I am a member recently paid a visit to the Glasgow Science Centre to, among other things, gen up on the public's perceptions of science. The point was made that some people see science as diminishing humanity. It was the rainbow argument: the beauty of a rainbow is lessened when it is explained through equations and ray diagrams.

That has never been the case for me. At school, I disliked optics. When, in my second year at university, I learnt that there was to be a full-term course on the topic, I was less than thrilled. Ten weeks later, thanks to a quietly enthusiastic lecturer with a mathematically elegant approach and a dry sense of humour, I was captivated. (Thank you, RMS. I don't think you would want to be identified any more explicitly than that, but you should know that I now see the layer of beauty beyond the coloured arc in the sky after a storm.) Around the same time, I was getting to know the late James Clerk-Maxwell.

This was hard not to do as I was in his building every day. He was a poet as well as the world's first unified field theoretician. Some of his verses were funny - science told in a parody of Burns. Others spoke of how the unravelling of natural law was a process that glorified God. Look up his poems on the net and see what I mean.

Strangely, the rainbow argument is often made by people who themselves teach children to deconstruct things of beauty. Is it not more, rather than less clinical to take apart a story called The Rainbow than a rainbow itself? Here's a ray reflecting internally, then refracting when exiting the raindrop. Here's the farmyard being used as a metaphor for a totalitarian regime (yes, I know that doesn't come from The Rainbow).

Here's an example of alliteration used to convey the sound of a class full of fifth-year pupils falling asleep.

I was lucky at school. I had a succession of superb English teachers who did not make the analysis of literature a mechanistic chore. I am confident that they were all sufficiently intelligent not to use glib arguments to belittle other disciplines.

If only everyone in both camps was like that. If only there weren't two camps. Somewhere, over the rainbow . . .

Gregor Steele used to arrange his OHP pens in spectral order in his top pocket.

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