Books for students: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

I found this book challenging for all kinds of personal reasons. You can see from this album on my Facebook page that I grew up as the son of Christian missionaries. I grew up amongst Buddhist (Thai) and Animist (Hmong) cultures while being told the Old and New Testaments were absolute truth; the Creation story, Noah and the rainbow, water into wine, all of it.

My parents remained Evangelical Christians until their recent deaths. Church three times on Sunday, after school Scripture exam classes, Christian summer holiday conferences, and my own adult involvement in charismatic Christianity have had a profound influence. It’s still difficult to hear words like “atheism” and not have some kind of gut reaction.

The pattern of Dawkin’s book is straightforward. Take a series of religious stories or myths and then give the scientific explanation. Then take that explanation forward into more complex ideas. With rainbows, Dawkins discusses myths about their existence which were around long before the Noah story and reveals how that Old Testament story seems to be an appropriation of the earlier versions. He goes on to explain how diffraction helps us see the constituent colours of white light, then goes further still explaining wavelengths and how redshift helps science understand that stars are travelling away from our viewpoint, and finally, how we can use this information to gauge the age of the universe. It’s a lovely, simple structure, taking the myth and slowly unpacking it. The repetition of the structure means the reader doesn’t have to work too hard on context but can concentrate on the facts.

Dawkins covers the topics of light, evolution, atomic structure, and others and does it with his usual economical and punchy manner. Here, Dawkins writes for teenagers and his register for this age group is almost spot on. He keeps it fluent and readable without being condescending and changes gear between technical and general vocabulary without grinding any teeth.

Dawkins knows his myths and demonstrates a passion for them. He wants to dispense with all myths and I can understand why; he asks a lot of questions of religion and it fails to answer them. What he doesn’t ask after in this book is our apparent need for symbol or metaphor. Perhaps our level of evolution gives us an ability not just to be self aware but to develop a search for meaning, whether that is a result of chemical and electronic brain behaviour or whether that is a result of our highly social existence, I’m not sure anybody knows. Other authors begin to ask these kind of questions like Alain de Botton in Religion for Atheists which looks at some of the arguments for religious practise if not for creed, and this article from the New York Times in 2009 gives another view.

There are three versions of this book. I bought the paperback which is fine but the illustrated hardback looks amazing and would have been my first choice if I was buying for someone else. There is also an iPad version but the app store reviews consistently criticise the navigation function. As it is a longish book, scrolling every page to get to a reference would soon get tiresome.

As an introduction to science (explaining the difference between weight and mass in a way that my Physics teacher never could!) this book is excellent. If you have a teen who is into science and needs a book which isn’t didactic or too much like a text but engenders a sense of wonder and delight in the natural world, then this is it. If you would like to read some other reviews, then here are links to The Guardian and The Independent

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About @moodybill

Trainee everything but practising teaching, photography, writing and drumming the hardest!
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2 Responses to Books for students: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

  1. Cate says:

    Now on my reading list for my two boys, thanks Bill!

    • moodybill says:

      I enjoyed it! Let me know how they get on. They will be better reviewers of it than me because they are the target audience! I would be particularly interested to hear if they think Dawkins gets the tone right for teenagers…

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