This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins - review

alt text
Dawkins: 'a friendly, conversational and forthright tone'. Photograph: Anne Katrin Purkiss/Rex Features

Myths and fables are the first Just So stories; they tell us what we would like to know. Science tells us what we may know, along with why and how we may know it. Myths endure because, at their best, they are great stories. The narrative of science is always incomplete, continuously under revision, and seldom delivers a neat ending or a consoling moral. Even so, as Richard Dawkins confirms again and again in this book – his first for "a family audience" – science composes stories as thrilling as Homer, as profound as Job, and as entertaining as anything by Kipling.

Consider the epic of creation: in considerably less time than it takes to say "Let there be light", all matter, time and space confected itself either from nothing, or almost nothing, about 13.7bn years ago, and within the first second was already on course to become an unimaginably vast arena for dark matter, light, galaxies, stars, planets, comets, asteroids, 92 elements, countless chemical compounds and finally – as far as we know – on just one little speck of a planet, a world of living things. No less wonderful is that this whole story has been transcribed by collective effort in only 400 years, with the agency of light and some help from telescope, microscope and the light-splitting, rainbow-making spectroscope. "Rainbows are not just beautiful to look at," says Dawkins. "In a way, they tell us when everything began, including time and space. I think that makes the rainbow even more beautiful."

He has, of course, stood up for rainbow research before: specifically in Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) and the strengths, and possible weaknesses, of this book lie in just that: it is a distillation of so much that Dawkins has written and argued since the publication of The Selfish Gene (1976), not excluding his 2006 provocation The God Delusion. The strength is that he knows his ground. The weakness is that – for a "family audience" – he deliberately constrains his vocabulary along with the exuberant imagery and belligerence that made his reputation from the start. The tone is friendly, conversational and forthright: don't ask him to explain how a rainbow tells you that time and space began with the big bang "because, not being a cosmologist, I don't understand it myself".

There is a price to be paid for a disarming manner. The reader may wonder whether you really have the ammunition and firepower needed to hold your ground. There is, conversely, a reward: such asides are a grown-up reminder that science is also about things we don't know, but which we are sure can be addressed.

And – in a relatively short book, prodigiously illustrated and beautifully designed – he covers a lot of ground by addressing a series of pleasingly simple questions. Who was the first person? Why are there so many kinds of animals? Why do we have night and day, winter and summer? What is an earthquake? And so on. The answers take us from DNA to the Doppler effect, from hydrogen to hibernation, from rainbows to redshift, from tsunami to tectonic shifts, from perihelion to parallax, from sod's law to shooting stars. Like many science writers before him, he starts with the myths once composed to explain the sun and the moon, or the animals, or the first humans, or the seasons, or the shaking earth: by the close of the book he has mildly placed the Aboriginal, Nordic, Hopi, Greek, Maori, Hebrew and Christian traditions as equally primitive, equally interesting and equally unsatisfactory explanations of reality.

This fabulous context drives the direction of the text, towards all those old questions that children must always have asked. I cannot think of a better, or simpler, introduction to science as a good idea: simpler, because the starting point is the world's palpable, experienced reality rather than say formal subjects such as genetics, wave mechanics or astrophysics; better, because it could hardly be more up-to-date. At the time of the book's writing (January 2011) "484 planets have been detected … orbiting 408 stars. There will surely be more by the time you read this."

Read on

TAGGED: BOOKS, COMMENTARY, RICHARD DAWKINS


RELATED CONTENT

Planet of the apes

Stephen Cave - Financial Times Comments

What we really know about our evolutionary past – and what we don’t

Magic at Every Age A review of Richard...

Stacy L. Memering,Viviana A.... Comments

Magic at Every Age
A review of Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True

CCI: DAVE MCKEAN ON DAWKINS, CHRIST AND...

Andy Liegl - CBR (Comic Book... Comments

In front of a packed crowd during his panel titled "My Two Years with Dawkins, Christ and a Small Crab Called Eric" at Comic-Con International in San Diego, artist, writer and indie filmmaker Dave McKean recounted two recent life events on radically opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum: an all-ages book he illustrated with scientist and Atheism proponent Richard Dawkins called "The Magic of Reality," and a film he shot starring Michael Sheen in Port Talbot, Wales called "The Gospel of Us," a modern day interpretation of "The Passion" story chronicling Jesus Christ's final days of life on Earth.

Redeeming God in Canaan

Doctor Science - Obsidian Wings Comments

Last weekend I noticed two religion blogs, one Jewish and one evangelical (though not fundamentalist) Christian, discussing the same passages in the Bible: the ones commanding the Israelites to fight, slaughter, enslave, and dispossess the Canaanite inhabitants of the Land of Israel. To commit genocide, in fact.

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

Oliver Kamm - The Times Comments

Review of The Magic of Reality

Dear believers: Blasphemy is good for...

John Gray - The Globe and Mail Comments

A review of The Future of Blasphemy Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights
by Austin Dacey

MORE

MORE BY TIM RADFORD

[UPDATE] The Ascent of Man by Jacob...

Tim Radford - guardian.co.uk 22 Comments

Richard Dawkins' watchmaker still...

Tim Radford - guardian.co.uk 39 Comments

Seeing Further: The Story of Science...

Tim Radford - guardian.co.uk 22 Comments

MORE

Comments

Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment