The Beauty of Knowledge

Allan Milne Lees
7 min readJan 26, 2020

Although reality is very complex and the human brain prefers simplicity, reality is far more wonderful than simple stories can ever be.

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When Isaac Newton explained the optics behind the phenomenon of the rainbow, the poet John Keats was troubled by the habit of science to walk in and show how things worked instead of being content to gawp uncomprehendingly or being satisfied with banal fairytales.

Keats wrote his poem Lamia to express his discomfort and within it are the lines:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine —

Unweave a rainbow

(For Keats the word “philosophy” did not carry its current sense of an isolated and overly-abstract discipline but rather it meant what we today call “science.”)

Bottom line: for Keats, understanding something was to rob it of its magic.

Yet it is difficult to agree with this viewpoint. Certainly a rainbow is a beautiful thing, but is it not even more beautiful when we understand how it arises from the prismatic effect of millions of tiny water droplets falling between our eye and photons escaping from the surface of our sun some twelve minutes ago, after having spent one hundred thousand years laboriously climbing from their original point of creation deep within the hydrogen-burning core?

In all the various human myths of gods and goblins there is nothing so beautiful as the understanding we’ve gained since the scientific revolution. In the last two hundred years our intellectual world has changed and expanded beyond all recognition. It turns out that reality is far more complex and subtle than we could ever have imagined; conversely all the myths we’ve invented over the millennia have a tedious and rather claustrophobic similarity. Which is not surprising because they were all products of ignorance.

Allan Milne Lees

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.