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Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true (Illustrated by Dave McKean, Bantam Press, 2011)

Cover Image£20, 272 pages

Buy from: http://pages.simonandschuster.com/magicofreality

Author details: http://richarddawkins.net/

Illustrator details: http://www.davemckean.com/

This beautifully illustrated book is intended for readers of all ages (roughly 12 and upwards), to help them understand the science behind some of the big questions people ask about how the world works: ‘ Why are there so many different kids of animals?, What is the sun?, What is a rainbow? It is intended to ‘prime the reader to think like a scientist.’ 

Dawkins is a first-class popular science writer, and this book is a page-turner. My favourite chapters were those about biology and astronomy, because they cover subjects that Dawkins clearly loves and are packed full of superb analogies. The illustrations are spectacular and highly imaginative, and definitely add to the reading experience.

Almost every chapter begins with a series of myths that have been used to tell the story of why things are the way they are. Dawkins dismisses these in a very blunt way, not allowing for any cultural or historical interpretation of the way people understand or tell stories about the world, and the purpose these myths serve in communities. The often held Christian understanding of the Genesis creation story as a figurative but true account, compatible with the scientific understanding of the origin of the universe and life on Earth, is not even mentioned.

The purpose of the book is best described in this quote:

I want to show you that the real world, as understood scientifically, has magic of its own – the kind I call poetic magic: an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works. Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison. The magic of reality is neither supernatural nor a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful and real. Wonderful because real.

I fully agree that a scientific description of the world can prompt a deep sense of awe and wonder. I also appreciate Dawkins’ humility in admitting where his descriptions must stop, partly because it may go beyond the understanding of his audience, and partly because he doesn’t understand it himself. But I disagree with his dismissal of metaphysics. His statement that ‘Some scientists speculate, perhaps fancifully, that there may be a ‘multiverse’…’ was interesting, given that I have heard him mention that this was his preferred explanation of the evidence for fine-tuning in the universe. Newton was described as someone who ‘may well have been the greatest scientist ever’ without any mention that he gave far more of his time to writing theology than science. Dawkins also makes a couple of speculative comments about miscarriages and the immune system that would probably be well placed in a lab meeting but are perhaps less suitable in a basic science book for children.

This would be a great book for teaching science - the illustrations, sense of wonder at scientific discovery and analogies are too good to miss. The very logical positivist philosophy behind Dawkins’ treatment of religion, however, would need to be thoroughly discussed and understood, as well as the more particular criticisms mentioned above.

Ruth Bancewicz, Test of FAITH Project Leader/Editor, The Faraday Institute

Difficulty: Easy