Suppose your child asks you what a rainbow is. Do you resort to cold, boring science and answer “diffraction through raindrops”? Or do you give her a hint of magic while she’s still young, and tell her that rainbows are fairy roads to leprechaun gold?

Rainbow

Science has an image problem. In the modern era, it feels like science is the boring old authority that tells you the way things are. “Rainbows are just diffraction”, science insists, and you’re not allowed to argue. There are no fairies – science has stripped the world of them.

Science started out as a rebellion against tradition and authority. It started out as a quest to listen to reality when she spoke of her nature, instead of listening to ignorant tradition.

But then science did discover how the world works, and now it’s the boring authority.

Perhaps the best way to spread science would be to keep it secret. For science is not an authority that demands rainbows be boring. Rather, science is tool used to discover how rainbows actually work. Science education systematically spoils all the fun.

To make matters worse, when science education spoils the mysteries it often fails to communicate the beauty. We train students to recite the right passwords to science questions – like “diffraction of sunlight through raindrops” – before they really understand the conclusion. We make them memorize the syllables before they see the tight interweaving of light and color, of raindrops and prisms. We force them to memorize the results of science, which goes against everything science stands for.

When science runs around spoiling all the endings, it’s easy to feel jaded. Rainbows looked like they were fairy paths to leprechaun gold, and now they’re “just” diffraction. It doesn’t matter if you don’t really understand diffraction: you’ve been told what you have to believe, and you’ve been told you can’t believe in fairies.

The mystery feels gone, even if it isn’t. It feels like science took something away, even though it didn’t. It’s easy to feel that science stripped the world of magic, leaving the universe a duller place.

But it’s not science that stole the fairies from the sky. That was done by reality.

Fairies don’t actually exist. Science did not kill them: they were never there. Reality is the one that stripped them, by dint of non-existence.

Perhaps it would have been fun to live in a world with fairies and dragons and gods: but we do not. To paraphrase an old wizard: We do not get to choose the universe we are born into. We only get to choose what to do with the universe we have.

Hercules is not in the stars. Rainbows do not lead to gold. There are no gnomes in the gardens. This is not the fault of science – this is the way things are. This is how reality turned out to be.

Science doesn’t strip the beauty from the world. Science didn’t strip the constellations from the sky. Science didn’t kill the fairies. Quite the opposite: whenever reality begins to look like it has no magic, science restores the wonder.