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Explaining science’s magic to the young

Richard Dawkins — evolutionary biologist, outspoken atheist and bestselling author of “The God Delusion” — is aiming to convince a younger audience. He’s written a book for 12-year-olds, although with its entertaining clarity and beautiful illustrations, it’s also appropriate for adults who lack a strong science background.

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” which will be released Tuesday in the United States, is a book about science, Dawkins says, and “not anti-religion.”

Unless, that is, you are a creationist (and believe God created man some 6,000 years ago) or a biblical literalist (who takes the stories of the Bible as the literal truth).

Creationists, Dawkins acknowledged in a recent interview, “might have trouble with it.” That includes some 40 percent of Americans, although the British academic says he hasn’t met many: “Maybe they are in Alabama or somewhere.”

Such is the devil-may-care sense of humor the soft-spoken scientist brings to discussion of his work.

He divides his new book into sections, such as “What is reality? What is magic?”

“Reality,” Dawkins writes, “is everything that exists.” Magic, on the other hand, “is a slippery word.” According to Dawkins, there are three kinds of magic: supernatural magic, stage magic and poetic magic. Supernatural magic happens in myth, fairy tales and, yes, miracles. Stage magic is tricks, pulling rabbits out of hats. And poetic magic is a beautiful piece of music, a gorgeous sunset, an alpine landscape, a rainbow in a dark sky, he writes. (Or “good sex,” he said over the telephone.)

In his book, he intends to show that “the magic of reality is the fascinating wonder of reality shown through science.”

Each chapter begins with mythological references. “I haven’t shied away from myth,” he says, referring to the story that Jesus turned water into wine. Like any other “miracle,” Dawkins says, that could have been stage magic (a conjuring trick — though he doubts it) or supernatural magic (like a Cinderella spell).

“The question is, why do people believe it actually happened?” he says.

He tackles three creationist myths in “Who was the first person?” “There is the Tasmanian myth,” he says, the Norse-Viking myth and the Adam and Eve myth — which he describes as colorful, interesting and “of course, all false.”

As for those who believe in the Adam and Eve myth, Dawkins is pretty blunt. “What baffles me about people like that,” he says, “is how they can get in a car, fill out tax forms, go to the grocery store or run a life, harbor these delusions and still be so ignorant and stupid? How do they navigate their way home without driving over a cliff?”

He holds out little hope of convincing them otherwise with this book.

“Serious churchmen have no problems with evolution,” Dawkins says. “Only the fundamentalists. They can’t have read the whole Bible because there are all sorts of horrors and contradictions if you only read it.”

One of his most intriguing chapters is “Are we alone?” To the question of whether there is other life in space, he says, “It’s a good peg to hang science on . . . to demonstrate a lot we don’t know.” Asked whether we were alone, Carl Sagan once answered, “I don’t know.” (Asked about his gut feeling, Sagan replied, “I try not to think with my gut.”) Dawkins says his first answer is also “I don’t know,” but adds, “We are probably not alone. It’s probably rather unlikely that we will meet any of the others or that they will meet any others.”

The question he is most frequently asked in terms of evolution is, what’s next for humans? What will we evolve into?

Read on

TAGGED: BOOKS, RICHARD DAWKINS


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