Unweaving the Rainbow


I listened to a podcast last night and it wrecked me. It was a conversation between Krista Tippet (whom I love) and a physics professor named Frank Wilczek (whom I knew nothing about) and was titled “Why is the World So Beautiful?” Wilczek recently wrote a book trying to answer the question “does the world embody beautiful ideas?” from a physics perspective. The podcast was a report of his findings.

I was making dinner as I listened, chopping vegetables with the wrong sized knife because all my good ones were dirty. I’d finished dicing two zucchinis, a red onion, and a few bell peppers while half listening to Wilczek discuss an article he’d written for the Wall Street Journal. I started on a tomato and Krista asked him how he finds meaning in the world.

The tomato slipped under the knife and I sliced the hell out of my finger. Like, big time. I missed the first part of Wilczek’s answer due to a slew of expletives that came from a dark (and emphatic) place within me. I held my hands under the sink for a while, letting blood mix with tomato juice as it ran off my fingers, and caught back up as a reference was made to Keats’ “Lamia.”

Specifically, they were discussing this passage:

“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 gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.”

Keats’ words have since been used as a complaint against science, claiming that it demystifies beauty – that it unweaves the rainbow. That the detailed explanation of a thing dilutes the magic of the mystery.

Wilczek, a firm believer in the beauty of the world and physics and science as a whole, rejects this notion, arguing instead that the colors of the “unwoven rainbow” are all one thing. He based this idea on Newton’s theory of relativity. (I know, stay with me.)

I can’t begin to do this justice so I’ll quote him here:

“So what you learn in the theory of relativity is that when you look at a light beam of a different color, and you’re moving towards it, it gets shifted towards the blue end of the rainbow. So if it was red, it might become yellow, or green, or blue, or ultraviolet if you’re moving fast enough. And if you’re moving away, there’s what’s called the redshift. Things move towards the opposite end of the rainbow. So all these colors can be derived from one of them by moving at an appropriate velocity. So really the existence of one implies the existence of all the others.”

He calls this “science’s poetic response to Keats’ chief complaint,” and then tacks it in with this:

“We humans are poised between microcosm and macrocosm, containing one, sensing the other, comprehending both.”

He said it as nonchalantly as he might take a sip of a coffee and moved quickly on to the next topic. Meanwhile, I threw soaking wet hands over my mouth and immediately started crying.

Just weeks ago I went for a walk with my dearest friend and we discussed this very thing. How bizarre it is that we just have these jobs that we do every day and then eventually we stop doing them and the world keeps going. And how disorienting it is that the things that mattered and hurt and meant so much two years ago are just memories now – and what that says about what matters and hurts and means something today. And how sin seems to carry this same element of distortion, feeling both overwhelmingly big and fleetingly small at the same time. How damn confusing it is that my sin is said to grieve the heart of God and yet has no bearing on his love for me. And what that means for how much weight should it carry.

It’s been one of my hang-ups since I was old enough to have hang-ups – feeling both too big and too small at the same time. I feel constantly suspended between every little thing becoming the biggest ordeal and nothing really mattering at all. I know and trust that God loves me in intricate ways and yet I feel caught in the current of a story so infinitely huge that surely my little world is all nothingness. I feel despairingly overwhelmed with options and grotesquely underwhelmed with meaning. And that lends itself gravely to apathy.

I see the rainbow and I want to unweave it. To dissect it and sterilize its pieces with knowledge. To watch how red bleeds into orange bleeds into yellow.

I see God’s story of redemption for his people and I want to do the same. To see how Tuesdays and conference calls and cleaning my bathroom fits into it all. Much less hospital rooms and divorce and the grey areas of conviction. I want the purpose of the big things to speak meaning into the small ones. And if I’m missing this somewhere please tell me, but it just doesn’t seem to always work that way. And I hate it.

But then I’m slicing open my finger with a paring knife, making dinner for one in an unswept kitchen, and hearing Wilczek argue that you can’t unweave the rainbow – that all colors are one thing – that “the existence of one implies the existence of all the others.” And later, that there is “…a deep unity beneath, supporting the diversity of appearance.”

And amidst tears and blood and a few more expletives (because God always seems to win my most indignant arguments) the analogy humbled me, hard. All purpose is one thing. The existence of His implies the existence of ours in everything we do. The magic of the mystery, a deep unity beneath.



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