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174 of 190 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Handsomely produced curate's egg, 8 Oct 2011
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This review is from: The Magic of Reality: How we know what's really true (Hardcover)
I'm a huge fan of Richard Dawkins. Despite the claims of his detractors, he is consistently calm and polite when arguing with people who disagree with his views, and his books -- oh, if only his detractors would read and understand them! -- are all lucid, thought-provoking and educational. For Dawkins to produce a book aimed at instilling in young readers a sense of wonder in the magic of the real world was a bold but commendable step. His approach, outlining the myths used by superstitious people to explain what they don't understand then showing how the real explanations are both more satisfying and convincing, is original and effective.

The problem with the book is that it only sometimes achieves what its cover says it intends: to explain HOW we know what's really true. Dawkins has run up against the obstacle that confronts every science teacher at every level. Science has given us so huge and so deep an understanding of our planet and the universe that it is by now impossible to detail the evidence for everything we know to be true. The consequence is science teaching that is often decried as a "wall of facts". There is so much to be learned it allows little room for presentation of the people who made the discoveries and the evidence on which the discoveries were based.

Newton's laws of gravity, Darwin's theory of evolution and Einstein's theories of relativity retain the names of the people who assembled the evidence, but for most familiar scientific "facts" we no longer have any idea whose work and what evidence lay behind their discovery. It is therefore disappointing that a book that sets out to explain how we know what is real so often follows the wall of facts approach. Chemical elements and compounds are described without even a hint how we proved the difference between the two. Crystal structures, behaviour of molecules in solids, liquids and gases, subatomic structures and the bonding flexibility of carbon atoms are all described (beautifully) but not accounted for with evidence. A Dawkins phobic reader would be entitled, for many chapters, to say "so we have to believe this just because it's written down in your book?" Which I think counts as an own goal.

When the book does get into scientific evidence it does so with finesse. The chapter "What is a rainbow" beautifully explains how Newton showed white light is made up of the spectral range of colours. The ingenuity of Newton's work with light beams and prisms leaps off the page at you. And the chapter sets the stage for understanding subsequent accounts of stars and galaxies. If only the same approach could have been used for every part of the subjects covered: but then it would have become a giant book.

Dave McKean's illustrations are brilliant, and the book's layout is so carefully organized that the text amounts to a flowing set of figure legends. Thus the one occasion when a separate caption is given for a figure jars the reader. The incongruous caption in question appears in the chapter on immunity and is made worse by containing an error. The illustration clearly shows antibodies binding to a virus surface, while the legend states that immune T-cells have attached themselves to the virus. This howler is surprising, considering the many colleagues Dawkins could easily have consulted for a cross-check.

For people who really want to read about how evidence for science was obtained, Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is an excellent, though not outstanding, attempt. Or you could read Simon Singh's masterpiece "The Big Bang" and get a real sense of the intellectual battle that rages within any scientific arena as new evidence constantly advances the ability of Homo sapiens to comprehend reality.
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Tracked by 7 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 18 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 8 Oct 2011 18:07:55 BDT
I understood (perhaps wrongly informed?) that this book was aimed primarily at younger readers: ie those who come to such matters as Dawkins raises with little or no prior knowledge. So, to compare this work with that of Bill Bryson's or of Simon Singh's is comparing oranges and apples.

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Oct 2011 19:15:54 BDT
Last edited by the author on 8 Oct 2011 19:18:37 BDT
F. Odds says:
Fair point; but Richard Dawkins' book is really not for very young readers. Teenagers are the appropriate audience for the level of writing. Bill Bryson is also fine for the teenage group. Simon Singh; you're right, probably for older readers. The Dawkins book is great for adults with no background in science and so too are the Bryson and Singh.

Posted on 20 Oct 2011 15:23:05 BDT
Last edited by the author on 20 Oct 2011 15:23:50 BDT
GJ_Reading says:
Nice review but where you say

"A Dawkins phobic reader would be entitled, for many chapters, to say "so we have to believe this just because it's written down in your book?" Which I think counts as an own goal."

I don't think they would actually be entitled to say that (not that it will stop them!), as each field has lots of verifiable research and evidence - its just that the target audience are not necessarily going to understand that fact. Hopefully the book has a further reading section, or references anyway.

In reply to an earlier post on 20 Oct 2011 17:41:27 BDT
The book includes neither "further reading" nor references: but then I am not sure the target audience would follow up on either of those additions. Eg, amongst the acknowledgements are "the staff and pupils of Moray Firth School".

Posted on 2 Nov 2011 14:01:32 GMT
J. Vaide says:
My six year old asked me yesterday where we came from. I showed him my copy of "The Ancestor's Tale" - all 619 pages of it(!) - and knew there was no way I could distill it for him in any meaningful way. Your review was actually very helpful for me - I think this book will be an excellent starting point for him, and then we can delve into the subjects more deeply as he (and I) becomes more intellectually able to understand the more in-depth explanations in relation to evidence. He's fascinated by the universe, so your mention of that chapter is encouraging.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Nov 2011 18:17:25 GMT
Having now read the book, I should say that a six year-old might find this a bit difficult in parts (mostly?), without some adult support. The chapter on tectonics (Titled "Earthquakes") and that considering life on other planets would be easily accessible, for example, but others are certainly more challenging. It will be my Christmas present to two 11/12 year-olds, each very interested in science. It is, though, the sort of book we used to read together (and discuss) when they were younger. I'm looking forward to some interesting after-Christmas debates.

Posted on 28 Nov 2011 21:02:19 GMT
Wyn Ap Hefin says:
I think this book is well pitched for the 'easy' reading level for either Children, or indeed those adults who might be put off by the 'heavier' reading of Dawkins' other books.

I suggest this book will entice new readers in to read the other works of brilliance by this author. Dont forget, this general subject can be rather daunting or even off putting for many adults, so this book is a more gentle overview and introduction to the subject, and the other books, not least, The Ancestors Tale, The Greatest Show on Earth, and, The God Delusion.

I've read all of RD's books, and I think this one fitts nicely into a niche, that was previously vacant! Nice one Richard!

Posted on 3 Dec 2011 12:25:16 GMT
August 15 says:
F. Odds says:

'A Dawkins phobic reader would be entitled, for many chapters, to say "so we have to believe this just because it's written down in your book?" Which I think counts as an own goal.'

No it isn't. The difference between Dawkins' presentation of scientific claims and the assertions of religion is that scientific claims can be checked and verified. It is unfair to expect Dawkins or any scientist to carry out an exhausttive presentation of the entire structure of science that supports its claims, and that's besides the limitations of space and the reader's patience. Unlike with religion, anyone who has doubts is welcome to do a bit a work and find the supporting material if they are unhappy.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Dec 2011 01:51:59 GMT
Juno says:
August 15 says:
"F. Odds says:

'A Dawkins phobic reader would be entitled, for many chapters, to say "so we have to believe this just because it's written down in your book?" Which I think counts as an own goal.'

No it isn't."

Yes, I think it does count as an own goal, simply because Mr Dawkins frequently goes to great pains to explain why, what we had previously thought of as "fact", and had accepted without question, should never be blindly believed without adequate proof.

Also, it shouldn't always be assumed that a reader who is "Dawkins phobic" is a blind follower of religion. I personally balk (or should that be 'boak'?) when I hear the man speaking .. because he sounds disturbingly like that chap who used to narrate the children's programme 'Noggin The Nogg' ...

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Dec 2011 10:43:03 GMT
Last edited by the author on 8 Dec 2011 10:49:59 GMT
Wyn Ap Hefin says:
@Juno, How is that an own goal?! The difference with the information in this book, is that its testable and is supported by evidence from a vast variety of sources - overwhelmingly so. The other books to which you infer, do not have anything like the strength of supporting evidence to the facts they proport - other than the assertion of those who beleive them to be correct. The distinction, therefore, is quite clear!
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