Random thoughts about Science and the World

Time is the fourth dimension. Now we just have to find the other seven...

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Book review: The Magic of Reality
This is a first, and I don't normally take the time to review the books I read, even if the majority of them are science-related in some shape or form. Don't get me wrong; I'm more than happy to recommend books to those who are interested, but since there are usually a great number of other people reviewing such books, many of which have a lot more clout when it comes to the various areas of science than I do, I've generally felt that my comments would be somewhat superfluous. The reason I am making an exception in this case is because for once I might have a perspective that it is possible that not too many of the other reviewers have, seeing as I am both a science-enthusiast and an educator. And it is for that reason that I am reviewing Richard Dawkins' latest publication; 'The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True'.

Let's begin with the book itself: it's absolutely beautiful. Choosing none other than Dave McKean to illustrate the book must have been a stroke of genius, and it is certainly one that has payed off. In adding his perspective McKean has contributed images that are at the same time clever, informative and absolutely wonderful to look at. This man never ceases to amaze me with his skills and his imagination. Here's to hoping he will never retire. Combined with Dawkins' elegant grasp of the English language, this book is a pleasure to read, and it seems as if this is a match made in the proverbial heaven. Dawkins, as always, is eloquent to point of prose, and as an educator I have learned a lot from this man when it comes to explaining difficult subjects in a clear and understandable manner. This book is no exception.

The content leaves very little left to be desired, covering questions like 'Why are there so many different animals?', 'What are things made of?' and 'When and how did everything begin?'. These are difficult questions, and while the answers themselves might not be new to those who enjoy science literature, the explanations are exquisite, accurate and presented in a language that should be accessible to children and young adults alike. One of the main points of the book is to give an introduction to science and the scientific method, and to compare Dawkins starts the chapters off with the retelling of myths and legends that were used by a wide variety of cultures to explain things like earthquakes, seasons and rainbows before we had access to science. When the book came out Dawkins was unsurprisingly accused by Bill O'Reilly for 'mocking God', but after reading it I can attest that the vast majority of the myths presented are from other cultures and traditions, and the only reason I can see that Bill'O would be miffed is that the Christian myths are treated no differently than any of the others. To Dawkins, and to science, they are all equally un-scientific, and in many cases, provably wrong. This is not a new 'God Delusion'. This is a book about the beauty and magic of science, and thus a contrast is made between the kind of supernatural magic that these myths represent and what is scientifically true. And for those setting out to learn about science, that is a contrast worth making.

The difference is made clear already in the first chapter titled 'What is reality? What is magic?' in which Dawkins rightly argues that the magic of reality can be just as, if not more, enchanting and wonderful than any myth or legend. Here he explains the modes of thought and methodology that lies at the core of science, and how it can help us determine what's really going on around us. The next chapter is devoted to the age-old question of 'Who was the first person?', in which Dawkins spends some time explaining why the question might not make as much sense as it first appears before entering into another one of his excellent thought-experiments to show how humans have evolved through a very slow gradual process. The book continues along these lines and it is all the while laced with references to the methods used by scientists to obtain the evidence that lies at the core of every scientific exploration. Knowing his audience and also his own shortcomings he is careful to limit the explanations to what one might expect 10-15 year olds would be able to grasp, for instance, when explaining what atoms are, stopping short of going into the strange world of quantum physics. This is probably wise as these are subjects that even relatively well-read adults have problems grasping, your's truly being no exception. But the information that is presented is more than adequate and inspires the reader to find out more and to continue exploring on their own.
Which, after all, is exactly what any educator should strive to accomplish.

All in all this is a book that I will be recommending to both friends and pupils for years to come. It is a book you would want to keep in your bookshelf, not only for its content, but also for its beauty, and it is a book I will be lending shamelessly from when teaching these concepts to my own pupils. In short, this is the best introduction to science I have seen, and I encourage everyone to go out and buy it.

Link: http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Reality-Know-Whats-Really/dp/1439192812


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