Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: An introduction to science, its findings and philosophies.
For more than a week Richard Dawkins was at fault for breaking my back as I carried his latest book, The Magic of Reality, with me to read on the train. Hard cover and all, this is a big heavy book, especially when compared to the anorexic Kindle ebook reader I do most of my reading with.
Still, I took the burden happily. Obviously, this reader will do his best to read everything coming from Dawkins’ direction, but this time there was more to it: The Magic of Reality is a book aimed at younger readers, and past evidence – coming in the shape of the very last essay in Dawkins’ Devil’s Chaplain – suggested the author has a special knack when it comes to writing for children. You can say how good The Selfish Gene is and you can argue how influential The God Delusion is, but if you were to ask me which specific Dawkins article I enjoyed the most I will point you to that particular book closing letter he wrote his daughter. Not to mention Dawkins’ Growing Up in the Universe lectures, where he proved his ability to deal with the younger amongst us.
Structure wise, The Magic of Reality is a book that raises questions, one question per chapter, and then provides answers for them across 15 chapters or so. Questions range from who was the first person ever to why we have seasons, how rainbows work, whether we are alone in the universe and what constitutes a miracle. In laying the answers to all of these once sentence long questions Dawkins uses a repeating trick: he starts by providing the mythical answers (e.g., Adam and Eve in the case of the first person ever), and then progresses to science’s answer. By doing so he clearly demonstrates just how much more fascinating the true answer is to the imaginary one – hence the book’s title. As one can expect from the sample questions I provided here, in answering the questions Dawkins provides the reader with a grand yet simple overview of where the forefront of science is at. Not only that, but through discussions on concepts such as miracles and other supernatural stuff he gets to discuss and impart on the reader what the philosophy of science is, a concept much more important to grasp then the latest achievements in quantum physics. As if by accident, Dawkins gives religion a good bash here and there as he guides us throughout the book.
Where The Magic of Reality excels is in conveying the very basics of scientific knowledge. I’ll give you an example that I’ve mentioned here in the past: I graduated a technical high school and did several university physics courses, but during the course of it all no one explained to me why the moon orbits the earth and doesn’t just fall into it. Dawkins does, and he does it so elegantly a child should easily understand it; similarly, children should have an easy time understanding his explanations on the spectrum or natural selection. You can argue I’m pretty dumb if I didn’t figure out for myself why the moon doesn’t fall down on us using the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years; I won’t argue with you there. What I will argue, though, is that having a teacher like Dawkins by my side would have made life so much easier, so much more exciting.
There was a reason for me straying from my habit of ebook exclusive book purchasing, and that reason is the graphic design of The Magic of Reality. Every page of this book is loaded with graphics by artist Dave McKean. The artwork is quite good and works extremely well in conveying the book’s message. Take my four year old as an example: he was so tempted by the photos that by now he can tell you why frog with the longer legs managed to escape the snake and bring forth future generations of frogs. In other words, the four images of frogs escaping from a snake featured in two pages of the book were all it took for my son to be interested and then understand the basics of evolution by natural selection. Quite an achievement, isn’t it?
I liked the way the artwork is integrated into the book more than I liked the artwork itself. Usually with books that include images of sorts you have to break the flow of the reading in order to check the images out, and then go back to the main story; not with The Magic of Reality. Here the art is so well integrated that the reading is flawless. You read The Magic of Reality from start to finish, graphics and all. [At this point I will add the book’s iPad version, available at the iTunes app shop, is rumoured to offer a fully interactive reading experience. If you can bear reading of an LCD screen (I can’t, at least not for long periods), and if you have an iPad at your disposal, then perhaps this is the version for you.]
Those of us familiar with Richard Dawkins’ writing will recognize repeating motifs. Obviously, the guy knows how to explain evolution, but readers of Unweaving the Rainbow will find a lot of similarities with that book, too. The main difference between earlier books and The Magic of Reality is the language: aimed at younger audiences, the latter features much less a poetic language and short sentences. It’s obvious Dawkins made some significant efforts to appeal to younger readers, and as far as I am concerned it works well: although the subject matter can be complicated, nothing in The Magic of Reality proved hard to understand. In other words, Richard Dawkins kept to his trademark ability of explaining things in fluid language that even my grandmother should be able to understand while not sounding as if he’s even slightly condescending. Of all of Dawkins’ qualities, this one is the one that appeals to me the most. So much so that every time I read something of his I feel sad for not having him as one of my university teachers. Luckily for me, Dawkins is a prolific book writer of consistent greatness. Indeed, The Magic of Reality left me in anticipation for what Dawkins may throw my way next.
I can only lament not having a guide of Richard Dawkins by my side when I was at the age group The Magic of Reality is aimed for. I can only lament all the years I spent not having a book providing the basic overview of science that The Magic of Reality provides.
I needn’t lament any longer. The Magic of Reality is an excellent book and an excellent all around experience that delivers through and through, both to younger ones as well as this older reader. I missed my chances, but my son won’t have to. The Magic of Reality deserves a glowing 5 out of 5.
P.S. Richard Dawkins, you can break my back any time you feel like.

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