The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins - review

A brilliant introduction to science for children

Myths and fables are the first Just So stories; they tell us what we would like to know. Science tells us what we may know, along with why and how we may know it. Myths endure because, at their best, they are great stories. The narrative of science is always incomplete, continuously under revision, and seldom delivers a neat ending or a consoling moral. Even so, as Richard Dawkins confirms again and again in this book – his first for "a family audience" – science composes stories as thrilling as Homer, as profound as Job, and as entertaining as anything by Kipling.

Consider the epic of creation: in considerably less time than it takes to say "Let there be light", all matter, time and space confected itself either from nothing, or almost nothing, about 13.7bn years ago, and within the first second was already on course to become an unimaginably vast arena for dark matter, light, galaxies, stars, planets, comets, asteroids, 92 elements, countless chemical compounds and finally – as far as we know – on just one little speck of a planet, a world of living things. No less wonderful is that this whole story has been transcribed by collective effort in only 400 years, with the agency of light and some help from telescope, microscope and the light-splitting, rainbow-making spectroscope. "Rainbows are not just beautiful to look at," says Dawkins. "In a way, they tell us when everything began, including time and space. I think that makes the rainbow even more beautiful."

He has, of course, stood up for rainbow research before: specifically in Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) and the strengths, and possible weaknesses, of this book lie in just that: it is a distillation of so much that Dawkins has written and argued since the publication of The Selfish Gene (1976), not excluding his 2006 provocation The God Delusion. The strength is that he knows his ground. The weakness is that – for a "family audience" – he deliberately constrains his vocabulary along with the exuberant imagery and belligerence that made his reputation from the start. The tone is friendly, conversational and forthright: don't ask him to explain how a rainbow tells you that time and space began with the big bang "because, not being a cosmologist, I don't understand it myself".

There is a price to be paid for a disarming manner. The reader may wonder whether you really have the ammunition and firepower needed to hold your ground. There is, conversely, a reward: such asides are a grown-up reminder that science is also about things we don't know, but which we are sure can be addressed.

And – in a relatively short book, prodigiously illustrated and beautifully designed – he covers a lot of ground by addressing a series of pleasingly simple questions. Who was the first person? Why are there so many kinds of animals? Why do we have night and day, winter and summer? What is an earthquake? And so on. The answers take us from DNA to the Doppler effect, from hydrogen to hibernation, from rainbows to redshift, from tsunami to tectonic shifts, from perihelion to parallax, from sod's law to shooting stars. Like many science writers before him, he starts with the myths once composed to explain the sun and the moon, or the animals, or the first humans, or the seasons, or the shaking earth: by the close of the book he has mildly placed the Aboriginal, Nordic, Hopi, Greek, Maori, Hebrew and Christian traditions as equally primitive, equally interesting and equally unsatisfactory explanations of reality.

This fabulous context drives the direction of the text, towards all those old questions that children must always have asked. I cannot think of a better, or simpler, introduction to science as a good idea: simpler, because the starting point is the world's palpable, experienced reality rather than say formal subjects such as genetics, wave mechanics or astrophysics; better, because it could hardly be more up-to-date. At the time of the book's writing (January 2011) "484 planets have been detected … orbiting 408 stars. There will surely be more by the time you read this."

Dave McKean's illustrations play wittily on already half-familiar images from Hollywood biblical epics, Pink Panther movies, film noir, science-fiction covers, cartoons, paintings, icons, hieroglyphs and formal scientific graphics. There is an extended homily for the young would-be rationalist, on probability and how to evaluate reports of miracles such as the apparition of the virgin at Fatima. This sustained emphasis on myth and fable is intended to provoke, and does.

I am reminded that my very first introduction to evolutionary theory was a Lamarckian heresy composed to account for the rumpled hide of a rhinoceros. It involved natural selection in the form of a hot day, some stale cake crumbs and a Parsee from whose hat the sun's rays were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour. It was, of course, one of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. I loved every word of it, and still do. I don't remember believing, even at the age of four, that a rhino ever took off its skin to bathe, and I absorbed the Darwinian version of evolution as soon as it was presented to me. The intended lesson of Dawkins's book is that science tells a marvellous set of experimentally testable stories. The less direct lesson may be that we cannot stop telling ourselves fables, but at least we should learn to tell the difference.

Tim Radford's The Address Book is published by Fourth Estate.


Tim Radford

The GuardianTramp

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