richard-dawkins

Richard Dawkins puts his scientific 'Magic' on a tablet

Sep. 28, 2011 at 8:26 PM ET

For decades, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has worked to separate myth and religion from hard-headed facts, through science books such as "The Greatest Show on Earth" as well as philosophical tracts such as "The God Delusion." But until now, he's mostly been talking to the grown-ups. In a new work titled "The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True," Dawkins goes after the younger set as well.

"Magic" is notable for three reasons:

  • It casts the search for the explanations behind natural phenomena as a progression from supernatural stories to natural reasoning, throwing biblical stories in the same bin with outdated tales of Egyptian sky gods and Norse deities. (Would you expect anything less from Dawkins?)
  • Dawkins argues that the scientific explanations for the origins of our planet or the reasons for a rainbow can hold as much wonder as any poetic passage from Genesis. "The truth is more magical — in the best and most exciting sense of the word — than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle," he writes. "Science has its own magic: the magic of reality."
  • Perhaps most intriguingly, "The Magic of Reality" takes advantage of the magic of technology in a tablet version created for Apple's iPad. The 678-megabyte iPad edition costs less than the 272-page book ($13.99 vs. a list price of $29.99, which is being widely discounted). But in addition to providing the full text, the e-book literally puts Dave McKean's scores of illustrations into motion. It also offers more than a dozen games, interactive graphics, videos and audio clips to click on.

My favorite clickables include a chamber that lets you turn up the heat and the pressure on a solid/liquid/gas to see Boyle's law at work (you can even slosh the liquid around by shaking the iPad) ... a graphic that lets you use virtual prisms, lenses and slits to play with on-screen rainbows (and illustrate how a spectrograph works) ... a game that lets you breed frogs for optimal leg length (too bad you have to kill off six frogs in every generation) ... and a series of virtual photographs that trace evolution backwards into the mists of time (which plays off a concept Dawkins used in an earlier book about evolution, "The Ancestor's Tale").

Each chapter of the book focuses on an age-old question, ranging from "What is the sun?" and "What is an earthquake?" to "Why do bad things happen?" and "What is a miracle?" Sometimes, Dawkins ends up shrugging his shoulders. For example, after noting that time and space itself are thought to have begun with the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, he adds: "Don't ask me to explain that, because, not being a cosmologist, I don't understand it myself."

And don't ask Dawkins to accept any supernatural explanation for natural phenomena, unless you want a tongue-lashing: "If you claim that anything odd must be 'supernatural' you are not just saying you don't currently understand it; you are giving up and saying that it can be never understood," he writes.

Is "The Magic of Reality" the consummate children's book about science? I'm hesitant to go that far, partly because Dawkins is so militant about going after Judeo-Christian beliefs. "As it happens, we know that lots of fiction has been made up about this particular preacher called Jesus," he writes. Religious families might feel threatened by Dawkins' preachiness, while non-religious families might wonder what all the fuss is about. I wonder whether "The Magic of Reality" would pass muster as a public-school science textbook, in light of Supreme Court rulings that say the government should not be actively involved in opposing religion.

Beyond those qualms, there are lots of intriguing scientific topics that Dawkins just had to pass up, ranging from the workings of the brain to the nature of dark energy and dark matter. Think of "Magic" as a jumping-off point for a young adult's scientific inquiry, rather than an all-encompassing reference work.

To Dawkins' credit, he acknowledges that there are still wide gaps in our understanding of the cosmos:

"There is much that remains deeply mysterious, and it is not likely that we will ever uncover all the secrets of a universe as vast as ours; but, armed with science, we can at least ask sensible, meaningful questions about it and recognize credible answers when we find them. We don't have to invent wildly implausible stories; we have the joy and excitement of real scientific investigation and discovery to keep our imaginations in line. And in the end that is more exciting than fantasy."

I might quibble with Dawkins' perspective on the roles that imagination and spirituality play in making sense out of reality, but his central point is that we shouldn't let our beliefs hold back the search for truth. And to that, I say amen.

More readings in science and religion:

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