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24 September 2011

How do we know what's really true?

Bringing Dawkins home to the kids

Andy Coghlan, reporter
(Image: Dave McKean)
In The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins brings science - and atheism - to teens. New Scientist reporter Andy Coghlan took it home to read with his family

John Lennon famously found himself in hot water in 1966 after declaring that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus". In the US Bible Belt, Beatles records were thrown on bonfires by infuriated evangelists eager to prevent their children's corruption by this pop icon. The question is whether the same fate will now befall arch-atheist Richard Dawkins's new book, a lavish tome entitled The Magic of Reality.

Dawkins has repackaged his passion for atheism - and for the capacity of science to deliver demonstrable truths about nature - in a book designed to appeal to teenagers. While Lennon gave offence by accident, Dawkins is unabashedly out to prevent what he sees as the brainwashing of children into religion.
Stunning in appearance, the book features beautiful illustrations by artist Dave McKean, which enhance and help to explain the text.

The writing is also masterly, if a little waffly in places. From the strident polemicism of The God Delusion, Dawkins has shifted into "wise grandad" mode. His strategy is laid bare in the list of chapters, a clear "scientific" rewrite of the contents of Genesis. The formula is simple: each chapter addresses a basic question: "Who was the first person?" or "When and how did everything begin?" Dawkins then supplies imaginative answers provided by ancient myths from around the world - among them prominent tales from the Bible. Finally, he demolishes these myths by supplying the "real" answers provided by science.

This formula works brilliantly. The tone may be softer, but as ever Dawkins is uncompromising in his refusal to accept religious explanations as anything other than fables. Scientists who quite happily square their faith with acceptance of evolution will likely find this incredibly patronising.

Under the title "Who was the first person really?", his explanation of evolution is compelling, as well as surprising, well reasoned and thought provoking. To his credit, Dawkins also admits to not fully understanding material outside his normal bailiwick, evolutionary biology. Of the big bang origin of the universe, he writes: "Time itself and space itself began with the big bang too. Don't ask me to explain that, because, not being a cosmologist, I don't understand it myself." But the closest he comes to conceding that forces might exist beyond scientific inquiry is when discussing the possibility of parallel universes where different rules of physics might apply.

The most provocative chapters, are the final two: "Why do bad things happen?" and "What is a miracle?" In the first, he rams home the message that nature, evolution and the workings of the universe are indifferent to our individual fates, and that it is through pure chance that misfortune strikes some but not others. In the second, he takes issue with Jesus's "water-into-wine" feat and admonishes against accepting miracles as truth. "Don't ever be lazy enough - defeatist enough - to say 'It must be supernatural' or 'It must be a miracle'," he writes. "Say instead that it's a puzzle, it's strange, it's a challenge we should rise to."

Notably missing, however, is a chapter entitled: "Why do people do bad things to others?" This question plays a key role in how and why religion evolved, and it is one that is still being researched. An experiment earlier this year, for example, found that children were less likely to cheat in a game if told they were being observed by "Princess Alice", an invisible, fictitious person (New Scientist, 23 April, p 18). Of course, the flip side of the order and cohesion religion can promote is the hostility it can engender towards strangers who are not part of the group. The book provides a golden opportunity for Dawkins to ask whether we can evolve to treat one another more civilly. Alas, he doesn't seize it.

Still, he finishes with a flourish, encouraging readers to be bowled over by the stunning beauty of reality - a sentiment I thoroughly support. Too few of us wake up each day and reflect on how amazing it is that we are not only alive, but aware of being alive. "The truth is more magical than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle," he writes. "Science has its own magic: the magic of reality."

The book is a triumph and will undoubtedly be a bestseller. The inevitable bonfires will only serve as brilliant advertising.
Andy Coghlan

I was a little apprehensive about reviewing Richard Dawkins's book, mainly because I remember spending science lessons staring out of the window in agonising boredom. But although I haven't studied chemistry or biology for four years, I was unable to put the book down. I found myself enjoying learning exciting new facts and having old ones reinforced. It was definitely no repeat of the classroom scenario.

The aim of The Magic of Reality is to make readers distinguish between myth and science. Critics may say that it is a one-sided argument, and perhaps a little too patronising or offensive towards religious explanations for earthly matters. Yet, as a history undergraduate, I appreciate how Dawkins backs up each point with evidence and explanation.

Perhaps the book's greatest asset is that it manages to bring science to life. The vibrant illustrations reinforce this, as do the fun font styles. There are "fact of the day" type statements, such as that the word "shampoo" originated from the Hindi language. Analogies, too, attach science to everyday life: Dawkins compares the history of generations to the height of New York skyscrapers. His style is colloquial, creating a relaxed, lighter tone. At one point, he suggests we hop in a time machine, "fire up the engine and zoom back ten thousand years".

The book is for people of all ages looking for a clear, simple and interesting read to improve their general understanding of science (though some explanations remain tricky - the Doppler effect might require a second reading, for example). While tackling questions of inconceivable magnitude about how and why events occur in our universe, this book conveys just how absolutely amazing - and magical - science really is.
Phoebe Coghlan, age 20

Miracles don't exist. Simple as that. The Magic of Reality hasn't changed my views on anything, but it has reinforced my views on miracles and why natural disasters happen and definitely expanded my knowledge.
The book is easy to understand, thanks to analogies Dawkins uses to back up or explain some of the science - for example, the idea that plate tectonics can be compared to moving walkways at airports, or that the distance between stars can be demonstrated with two distantly positioned footballs.

At times, Dawkins uses one too many analogies or scientific examples to get a point across, and the jumps between chapters sometimes seem very random indeed - such as aliens to earthquakes - but his style is very fluid, so I really didn't mind.

The book is also written like a discussion. Dawkins is inviting teenagers, such as myself, on a voyage of discovery with him! He refers to "us" and "we", instead of "you", and I really felt like I was being invited to find out all about earthquakes, stars and what have you, alongside him.
Callum Coghlan, age 13

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