Book Review: The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins. Illustrated by Dave McKean
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Free Press (October 4, 2011)
I have posted on this book before (see A reminder of reality’s magic). It’s now available in New Zealand so a review is in order. Fortunately I have had an audio version of the book for a week, have listened to it all and am happy to recommend it. I can especially confirm my earlier recommendation as a sciency book for young people – perhaps a Christmas present.
Richard Dawkins himself says he aimed the book at young people from 12 years old to 100 years old. Younger children may also enjoy it, especially with parental help.
Each of the book’s twelve chapters are built around a question – the sort of questions young and other inquisitive people ask. “Who was the first person?”, “What is a rainbow?”, “What is the sun?”, “What is reality? What is magic?”, “When and how did everything begin?”, “Why do bad things happen?” “What is a miracle?” and so on.
Most chapters start with the traditional or mythological answers. Some of those will not be new, coming from our own tradition or religion. New Zealanders will recognise a number of Maori or Christian myths. Others will be new, refreshing, intriguing, or even plain silly from our point of view. But, of course, there is no reason to suppose any mythological tradition is any more correct, or of any more value, than another. This helps develop a rational perspective.
The rest of each chapter provides scientific answers. In the process of providing the background and history the narrator goes off at tangents, but always returns to the original question. In the process Dawkins describes whole areas of science in a lively, interesting and thorough way.
The audio version is successful – not easy for science which can often be complex and need visual material. I think this demonstrates that Dawkins’ approach, examples and language communicates the subject well. He certainly does shine as a science communicator.
The publishers have recognised both the importance and consumer response to this book by publishing it in several different formats. A hardcover (or pBook) version, an audio version and an iPad version. Its large graphical content has probably precluded an eBook version – but seems to have made it ideal as an iPad app (see video below).
iPad version trailer
Nothing is perfect
This is reality, after all. As good as this book is there will be valid criticisms to make. Other reviewers might find errors of fact (inevitable in such a book). My main criticism is that Dawkins did not take on the challenge of providing more coverage of modern relativity and quantum theories.
On the one hand, I can appreciate the dilemma for the author. To what extent should a book for young people attempt the challenge of such counter-intuitive concepts? And Dawkins does a good job communicating the humility of science and individual scientists. He acknowledges his own limitations by explaining that as a biologist he cannot adequately describe ideas of what caused the “big bang” or what quarks are. His implication is that such questions be directed at particle physicists and cosmologists. This modesty does a lot for his credible image in the book.
On the other had – this book is about the magic of reality. It does, in places, show how reality is non-intuitive and that “common sense” ideas often fail. I feel this approach could have included introductory ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics. It would also help to reinforce his message that some of the models scientists use are mathematical and not mechanical. Without getting into the mathematics or the complexity of the logic he could have communicated the idea that we should not expect to build mechanical models of things like the very large, very small or very fast, which are outside human experience. And yet we can construct mathematical models which are very accurate and powerful.
It’s a message he has given elsewhere. And it would have added to his excellent description of scientific method and understanding of what we mean by scientific knowledge.
A publishing phenomenon
The publishers are putting some effort into the book promotion. The book launch itself will be to a large audience at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 19th October (see An evening with Richard Dawkins). No doubt there will be a number of book tours – and there seems a good chance that we will have opportunities to attend one of Richards talks down under. Dawkins will speak at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne next April . His publishers took advantage of a similar engagement last year to send him on a speaking tour of New Zealand and Australia promoting his last book (The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution).
The controversy generated by Dawkins’ book The God Delusion seems to have created a publishing phenomenon. Publishers now unhesitatingly bring us similar books – they see them as best sellers. They have also reprinted and promoted Dawkins previous books. Many new readers now have the opportunity to purchase and read other books by Richard Dawkins. I personally feel this has also helped encourage recent publication of many other popular science books.
Although controversy over The God Delusion originated from religious sensitivities even his last book (The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution) was frantically attacked by creationists. These attacks have only increased sales.
I guess its only natural to be somewhat cynical of such promoted publicity. However, it is very gratifying that in this case it’s for such a worthwhile cause.
A seditious message?
I think most readers will appreciate inclusion of the mythological explanations. They do illustrate the human inventiveness when it comes to primitive explanation, as well as our colourful story telling. Inclusion of multiple mythological explanations in each case also helps demonstrate the ineffectiveness of such mythology – with such variety how can any one tradition seem more reliable than the others.
In a sense this, and not the science, is the real seditious message of Dawkins’ book. It is similar to his advocacy for the teaching of comparative religion in schools, rather than providing religious instruction. I expect it will be this, rather than the science, which will motivate the ideological critics of Dawkins to angrily denounce this book, as they have his earlier books.
Their emotional reactions will also be motivated by the success of Dawkins as a science communicator and the publishing phenomenon he has become. And who would have it any other way? Not me – I think this emotional reaction is one of the reasons for Dawkins’ success. And given the nature of his message that is all for the good.