Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review: The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True

Last week, as occasionally happens, a package mysteriously appeared in my mailbox at work. These packages contain books that my coworkers have requested or that publishers send to our company for review prior to their release. (They always seem to come to me by mistake.) I tore this one open and found myself holding The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True by Richard Dawkins. This, his most recent book (released yesterday, as a matter of fact), is a book about evolution written for children aged ten to twelve and up. I had heard about this book for months and I couldn’t help but be excited.

One of the perks of my job is working with very nice people who will sometimes allow me to enjoy the perks of their jobs. Lauren Becker, who had actually requested the book from the publisher, graciously let me read it first. Even if I hadn't already been interested in this book, I knew that it was an offer I shouldn't turn down. Read the new and as-yet-unreleased book written by a pillar of the scientific community? Why yes, thank you! I’m a little more than pleased that I got to read this book before its release and that I can share my thoughts and honest opinions on it with you before you've even seen it in bookstores. It gives me that childishly antagonistic feeling that makes me want to put my hands behind my ears and stick my tongue out at you. Na na na na na naa!!!!

In all seriousness, this is a fantastic book. It is structured like a textbook; each chapter has a theme and teaches lessons using examples. Unlike textbooks, however, it's written in a conversational tone, as if you were sitting around with Dawkins himself as he explains how a spectroscope can tell us how far away a specific star is located and what elements are present. The illustrations are fantastic and include depictions of myths, diagrams that are actually fun to study, and photographs of distant galaxies. Both the text and the graphic images are presented in what could be called nontraditional patterns at times, so the reader's eye is always engaged. Speaking from the experience of attending seventeen years of school I can attest to the fatigue that one’s eyes suffer after reading page after page after page of columns of text sporadically broken up with a black and white diagram. When a reader's eye is engaged, his or her mind will be also. Between the structure, tone, general attractiveness, and layout of this book, it's essentially what a textbook should be (especially one written for kids).
My very first reaction was that parents should read this book with their kids. Dawkins is giving kids the answers to questions that they may not have known they wanted to ask, but he is also teaching them to think critically and ask questions of their own, and that is more valuable than any scientific lesson. My mother was a teacher and always taught me to think for myself, and I think it is an invaluable tenet of parenting. I have learned from experience working with kids that the smartest ones ask all the questions. They want to know more, they want to know why and they want to know how. We need to encourage and cultivate this trait in our children. The inquisitive nature of humanity is what has gotten us this far. We cannot allow the younger generations to forget this—or worse, to never learn it at all.

As far as content goes, this book is an excellent resource for anyone over the age of ten. Dawkins captivates his readers with alarmingly simple descriptions of what always seemed to me to be complex scientific concepts and provides a basic but decently thorough understanding of a wide range of topics and subtopics. Some of the chapters serve as a refresher course on things I studied in school but was never really interested in before. In fact, I had fully rejected the physical sciences and advanced mathematics, writing them off as subjects that wouldn't concern me in my chosen career in the arts and that I wouldn't even understand if I were interested. But now, I close the back cover of this book feeling I have a much better base of knowledge from which to dive into the subjects that have intrigued me lately—things like physics and outer space.

Dawkins did use some multimedia to limited success. At three different times in the book he directs the reader to web pages with video, audio, or interactive lab resources to help illustrate his points and to keep the reader actively engaged. However, his first link to a video on YouTube of a reading of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales does not work; the video has been removed. The other two links (which I’ll mention later) worked just fine and were terrific resources, but overall I thought simply including the URL in the text was odd. They all linked to different websites, and I think he should have included these resources on his website ( and directed readers there to simplify and condense the process. I appreciate that he wanted his readers to interact with his lessons to really drive them home, but such a limited use of these supplemental materials made them seem out of place.
Evolution is, for obvious reasons, a major focus of the book and Dawkins works hard to prove to young minds that it is a better answer to questions regarding the origin of life: "To say that something happened supernaturally is not just to say 'We don't understand it’ but to say 'We will never understand it, so don’t even try’…Science thrives on its inabilityso farto explain everything and uses that as the spur to go on asking questions... It is through such adjustments and subsequent testing that we approach closer and closer to what is true” (p.23–24). Dawkins introduces evolution and gene theory to the reader by setting up an imaginary selective breeding experiment with a group of frogs, illustrating how organisms change and adapt. The reader is the “selector” who wants his frogs to grow longer hind legs and selects which frogs to allow to breed, playing with the idea of "intelligent design." But Dawkins ends the experiment stressing the fact that selective breeding will happen without a designer by way of natural selection.

He continues the evolution lesson with a family photograph analogy, teaching kids about their most ancient ancestors all the way back to lizards and fish to show that humans and every other creature on this planet did share a common ancestor, and that DNA can prove this. Most people reading this probably know already that this is true, but Dawkins presents it in a way that easily makes sense to young readers and seems irrefutable. He continues the theme into chapter three as he discusses the wide variations of species of animals and uses Darwin's family tree and our classification system to further illustrate that we are all connected. In doing so he creates a sense of community and connectedness to other life forms (which I think is important to do), even using the comparison of atoms to mini solar systems.

Dawkins covers a wide variety of other topics in this book, but the chapters I paid strictest attention to were those that addressed geography (my academic field). In two separate chapters he addressed a few quite basic geographic topics. Chapter five examined the revolution of the earth, its orbit around the sun, and how those actions create night and day and the seasons, respectively. He addresses the mass, weight, and gravity of Earth as well as that of other planets and the sun, and how it all affects our space exploration. In doing so he is laying the groundwork for topics he discusses in the coming chapters, another touch that adds to the overall structure and impact of the book. Dawkins is constantly building on previous lessons, referring back to remind readers of what they have learned so far and to extrapolate that knowledge into new lessons.
Chapter ten concerns earthquakes. I was very keen to see how Dawkins would approach this subject because it’s something I get very excited about and love to share with others. Honestly, I was disappointed because it is the shortest chapter in the book. I would have liked to see Dawkins go into further detail, but I’ll admit that’s mostly because I’m partial to the subject. This chapter included one of the three media links: ( The graphics as well as the video link did a great job of illustrating how plate tectonics works.

UK edition cover art
I would recommend that parents pay special attention beginning with chapter six. Chapters seven and eight are probably the most technical of all and might be out of the grasp of some of the younger readers. These chapters focused on the sun and “the life story of a star,” how stars work, and how they are formed, often with galaxies of planets forming with them and around them. Chapter seven is titled “What is a Rainbow?” and doesn’t at first seem particularly relevant to evolution or the other scientific principles Dawkins has addressed. But after discussion of the myths about giant floods and dragons, he uses the rainbow to introduce the refraction of light in order to delve into the real meat of this chapter—the electromagnetic spectrum and its importance. He specifies the known wavelengths of light, how they are related (or unrelated), and what we humans do with them. (Here you will find the second media resource that I seriously recommend checking out:, the Absorption and Emission Spectra.) He then uses the next chapter to spell out how the light spectrum can be used to measure distances to stars, identify types of stars, and prove everything in the universe is moving. Most importantly he ends the chapter detailing how scientists have used all of these techniques and information to calculate back to the big bang that began the universe. These were probably my favorite chapters simply because they were fascinating, and I easily understood things I never thought I would. You have to understand that I didn't think I was smart enough to study the hard sciences in school. I never tried because I never thought I would get it. Now I’m kicking my butt up and down the streets wishing I could go back and do it all over again. That’s the magic of Dawkins’s book; he makes it easy for everyone to understand.

Chapter nine begins the denouement of the book, and I began anticipating how Dawkins was going to tie it all together. This chapter hypothesizes whether or not there is actually life on other planets, but does so by first clearly specifying that we must understand just how alien other life forms will be (if we should ever find any that exist at all). He makes it quite clear that we cannot expect to find other life forms that are similar to humans or any other creature found on Earth, and points back to the concepts of mass, weight, and gravity and how they have shaped our lives and how the many different possibilities and combinations that compose other planets will shape the life that may grow on them. For instance, he demonstrates that a planet made of gold “would have a mass more than three times as great [as one the size and diameter of Earth]. Everything would weigh more than three times as much and that includes any living bodies on the planet. Putting one foot in front of the other would be a great labour” (p.196). What a fantastic way to impress on children just how different life on other planets, should we ever find it, will be. This is where the purpose of Dawkins’s book really shines through: he is teaching kids to think critically, to think for themselves using what they know about elements, mass, weight, gravity, stars, the sun, and energy. He is stressing how important it is for them to use the knowledge they have and to apply it and extrapolate it into new knowledge.

The chapter titled “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” was the one weak point of the book. It tackles a difficult subject and began with a good start. He attempts to explain the answers by introducing theories such as the law of averages and Sod's law/Murphy's law. He uses these to make kids think more logically about these questions and find the answers for themselves, or to at least begin forming their own opinions. But he appears to get derailed and begins talking about the appearance of disease in early humans and the resulting paranoia. He discusses the immune system, autoimmune disorders, and how our bodies and our minds don’t always know what’s good or bad, right or wrong, familiar or foreign. But unlike previous chapters he does not come full circle to make his point or teach a lesson. The reader is left with comments that bad things are arbitrary or relative and we can't control them, and they exist even in our own bodies. He ends with a question regarding cancer, which is interesting in its own right and does encourage the reader to come up with an answer. Perhaps he was trying to emphasize that there is no answer, but in truth he just leaves the reader hanging. It's such an important chapter that it seems careless to end it with no real resolution.

The final chapter, however, is wonderful. Dawkins makes his point rather elegantly and in a way that is exciting and encouraging: kids must learn to think for themselves, to use logic, and to be skeptical. We must not rely on myths or magic for answers; the true magic is science because it is real. When we examine the scientific truths on which our existence is based, when we understand these truths and use them to learn more about our world, we do not need fairy tales or supernatural beings.

This book taught me. And at this point in my life, I am thirsting for knowledge, thirsting to learn. Maybe I miss college more than I thought (definitely more than I'll admit) or maybe I'm just changing. Science has become a consuming obsession with me lately. There's a lot I feel I’ve missed out on but I know that there's still time for me to learn. That is a big part of why I kept the book, and a huge part of why I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

How did this happen? How do we know? The slow poetry of science is long and complicated. The answers are intertwined and inextricable from each other and far more beautiful than anything we could invent. The magic is that it’s all true, and we’ve got the proof to back it up.

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