on 18 September 2011
I am glad that Dawkins has decided to write a popular science book to include a younger audience. The clarity and humour with which he deftly expounds factual reality (is there any other kind), deserves to be accessible to all.
I read the 265 pages of this book within 24 hours of having received it, not through lack of content, rather because the content was so logical, amusing and beautifully illustrated. Award winning Dave McKean should take some credit here. The Dali-esque depictions of imaginary creatures from other planets were some of my favourites. Pictures aside, if I find a book dull, I fall to sleep very quickly. Despite being familiar with much of the content, I was riveted.
The format of each chapter deserves a mention.
1)Start with a popular misconception about how something was once thought to be explained.
2)Demonstrate the poverty of the myth's ability to generate new and real information.
3)Observe the peculiar, mythological attempt at logic, laugh hard
4)Proceed with the actual, testable and scientific explanation.
Where a question lies outside the boundaries of current understanding or Dawkins personal expertise, he is quick to point this out. Given the title of the book, I was pleased to see that no attempts were made to fudge answers (a standard I would expect), though at times I do suspect a little false modesty.
Being critical, I think a problem that a book like this must face is where to start, because the assumption of prior scientific knowledge would risk losing the target audience. Therefore, popular science aficionardos may find this slow to start. However, the apparently randomly ordered chapter subjects build well upon each other to reveal some of the most interesting content later on.
Any author writing on the nature of truth is bound to expect controversy and I expect the proponents of the myths concerned will be 'up in arms' (again.) This book doesn't suggest that faith in the supernatural cannot feel magical to the believer: rather it emphatically illustrates the exhilarating, magical awe experienced by discovering life's grandeur.
on 8 October 2011
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.
Dawkins here seeks to enthuse young minds about science: not only with its discoveries but as an approach to the world that is far more thrilling and fascinating - not to say productive - than the idle stories and easy answers of myth and religion. Indeed, it is inherently an encouragement to learn and to challenge one's intellect, rather than to remain ignorant.
Each chapter addresses a question about the world: What are things made of? What is a rainbow? Dawkins commences in each case by recounting myths from around the world. He acknowledges that these stories are enjoyable and interesting, but he does not need to work hard to show their inadequacies as explanations. (Dawkins bundles in the myths of current religions with those of ancient or 'minor' ones, which is perfectly legitimate, if a tad mischievous; but he does not hammer the reader over the head with that angle: the word "atheist", for instance, does not appear.)
Then follows the scientific view of the phenomenon in question, carefully and clearly articulated. Although generally well pitched for an audience entering their teenage years, his prose is sometimes a little demanding:
"The Chumash people believed that they were created on their island (it obviously wasn't called Santa Cruz then, because that is a Spanish name) from the seeds of a magic plant by the Earth goddess Hutash, who was married to the Sky Snake (what we know as the Milky Way, which you can see on a really dark night in the country, but not if you live in a town where there is too much light pollution)."
Somebody should have told him not to squeeze two or three sentences into one! Such lapses are rare, however, and the text is a thoroughly engaging read.
Of course, it's only half the story. It scarcely does justice to Dave McKean's contribution here to say that he "illustrated" The Magic Of Reality: he has designed the book from cover to cover, winding the text in and out of the art, playing visual games, creating pictures in ethnic styles corresponding to the cultures whose myths are under discussion, and eloquently illustrating the scientific ideas. Admirable as the text is, it would form a far less lively book without this consummate, diverse and colourful graphic enrichment.
Putting both together, this is a splendid celebration. It may be an unusually large slab of non-fiction for the average teenager, but those with the appetite for it will be amply rewarded.
on 3 October 2011
A thoroughly excellent and charming read. I would highly recommend this book to anybody regardless of age or experience. As a young man with a fairly good knowledge of popular science I still found myself learning a lot of knew things, and even if I hadn't, the sheer clarity of thought and beauty of the writing would make it more than worthwhile. Not to mention some outstanding illustrations from Dave Mckean.
It should be on the shelves in every household for so many reasons, but I can imagine for parents looking to educate their children in critical thinking then this would be perfect. I certainly would have liked a book like this to have been available in my younger years! I think particularly the structure of the book provides an excellent framework for the content, with each chapter asking one of the profound questions which we have all asked at some point. A must buy.
on 16 September 2011
I think it was Carl Sagan who once said that the awe of understanding is so much greater then the awe of ignorance (or something thereabouts). What he meant was that religious myths are amazing and beautiful. The myth of genesis and the tribal myths of the world all have their peculiar poetic lushness, but the real truth, the real magic of reality, is so much much better. Take for example the age of the universe, or evolution - understanding the scales and the time-scales of these events is truly mind boggling! This is what Richard attempts to do here. The book takes a look at things like the birth of the universe, rainbows, the beginnings of life, matter, earthquakes etc etc and looks at them from firstly the perspective of religion and myth - and then from the perspective of science. Science is the best tool man has of understanding the universe and a lot of what book is about is WHY science is the better method. It's also a great book because it teaches children (and adults) how to think for themselves. It's beautifully written as expected from richard and beautifully illustrated. One thing I would add is that this book is dying to be purchased in hardback because the larger size and better quality paper does the images more justice! Don't wait for the paperback version! Get the hardback version. It's only £10. A requirement for any respectable bookshelf!
on 15 September 2011
An inspiring read and an ideal gift for youngsters and anyone interested in science. The style is easy to follow and the illustrations are fantastic. It is divided into beautiful chapters which each in turn would distinguish between what is real and scientifically proven, and what is merely a fairy tale, and invites one to think for oneself what is more magical: a fairy tale or an awesome scientific tale. Highly fascinating, enlightening and beautiful.
on 1 November 2011
Dawkins, most ably assisted by his illustrator, sets himself a major task, and succeeds. In clear, flowing, enjoyable language he describes the current state of scientific knowledge on everything from the origin of the universe to the evolution of life. Even more importantly, he places our knowledge in the context of how we acquired it, what evidence it is based on, and in an even-handed discussion gives an overview of mythological, pre-scientific explanations, from both Judaeo-Christian and other sources. Finally, he conveys the deep emotional (some would say spiritual) satisfaction that comes from reality-based exploration of our wonderful universe.
I found two small errors. His attribution of Hubble's law to Hubble's observations is incorrect, as is his assertion that elements heavier than iron are made only in supernovas (Hubble used observations by various colleagues, and his law was formulated earlier by de Maitre; r-process nuclei are formed in supernovas, but s-process nuclei in massive "asymptotic branch" red giants).
Why only four stars? Because I consider his final chapter to be a serious error of judgement. Here the subject matter is not any area of science, but belief in miracles, which he attacks on predictable Humean grounds. I completely agree with him in this, but think it would have been far more educational to leave this exercise to the reader, when the reader is ready for it.
Having just returned from Professor Dawkins' first lecture on his new book (September 2011), I can recommend it; I have heard him before, many times and he has not lost any of his skill.
If one mounts a hobby horse on a regular basis, one tends to be associated with it; mounting it often with great enthusiasm, some might saying aggressive intent, it tends to become synonymous with the rider. So it is with Richard Dawkins, a position he seems to relish. Although the book is obviously a tangential swipe, the book deals with a range of issues from a scientific point of view.
In his lecture, he pointed out three forms of magic to explain the "magic" in the book's title: stage magic in which the magician admits he is playing tricks on the audience, "The slight of hand"; the charlatan's falsely claimed magic in which someone claims to be able to bend spoons, find oil in the ground, alter clocks and so on but not by slight of hand but by the power of the mind; finally, there is poetic magic, the awe we all experience on occasions faced with the wonder of nature. This is the magic he writes of and has defended in the past in "Unweaving the Rainbow".
The format of the twelve chapters is thoughtfully constructed.
a) Consider a well-known and popular confusion or misconception relating to ways of explaining events;
b) Show how the myth is limited in ways of generating real facts and information;
c) Consider the strange ways in which mythology attempts to explain itself logically or scientifically;
d) Illustrate and elucidate the testable, logical, scientific explanation of the events.
1) What is Reality? What is Magic?
2) Who was the first person?
3) Why are there so many kinds of animals?
4) What are things made of?
5) Why do we have night and day, winter and summer?
6) What is the sun ?
7) What is a rainbow?
8) When and how did everything begin?
9) Are we Alone?
10) What is an earthquake?
11) Why do bad things happen?
12) What is a miracle?
Many people will argue, as Blake did of Newton, that science reduces the world to arid, factual explanations. Others will argue that many of the popular myths known throughout the world have served a good purpose for millennia, so why change them now? Others that Professor Dawkins has a high opinion of himself, setting himself up as the new authority to debunk aspects of a world many people treasure. He is, without doubt, a marmite character, one who has fervent followers and detractors; I heard good examples this morning, passionate exponents of both from many parts of the world - Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
I find little to argue with in the book. It is simple to read, deals with many of the features of our world our forefathers have tried to explain and is well-illustrated making it a visually-exciting book to look at. Dave McKean, the illustrator, has done a good job. There is strand running through it which most children are unlikely to detect; thinking adults will.
on 22 September 2011
I bought this book as a physicist with an interest in education. The presentation is suitable for the eight to twelve age group but the scientific content will be very difficult for most of those children and it would be helpful to them to have bright and well educated parents. As for myself I was familiar with most of the scientific content but very much enjoyed the various myths with which Dawkins begins each chapter. I recommend this book very strongly, and also recommend that parents read and understand it before presenting it to their offspring.
I would love to see multiple copies in all school libraries. It certainly will not reach the libraries of many faith schools.
on 25 October 2012
I ordered a hard back as well as this soft back version. THIS VERSION IS NOT ILLUSTRATED. Despite some reviews referring to the illustrations.
Some of the things said about the words of the book are true, but if that for instance makes people search for the basis for some of the explanations in other books, for example the brilliant 'Ancestor's Tale' demonstrating the enormous evidential base for evolution, then fine by me. But I would have liked to have seen footnotes with references to such sources.
I was a touch upset at Watson & Crick getting all the helix credit, I think Rosalind Franklin should have been mentioned (she very likely would have shared the Nobel Prize had she not been dead at the time).
I think the hardback, illustrated, version would deserve five stars, but can only give this version four.