Wednesday, 25 October 2017

#34 A book about science

The Magic of Reality  - Richard Dawkins 

Richard Dawkins, who was the University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008, provides us with a sweeping introduction to science in this slim volume. It is a very basic introduction to science and most of us would probably know all that he has to say – but the newness lies in HOW he chooses to bring this about. 

Each chapter is preceded by a question which he goes on to answer using various examples, illustrations and myths. That’s right – MYTHS. In fact he begins with several myths that explain the chosen phenomenon (eg: rainbows) and then goes on to provide a scientific explanation to it instead.

In his opening chapter he clearly lays out his intentions – to justify the real world through science and dispel myths for young readers. The illustrations accompanying the text are beautifully rendered by Dave Mckean (however, it is not available in the simpler paperback version). The language is very simple, almost feels like the author is giving his voice to a documentary and explaining the mysteries of the world to you.

  Some of the questions include:
-          Who was the first person?
-          Why are there so many different animals?
-          What are things made up of?
-          What is the sun? etc….

As is probably clear from the questions themselves, this covers a lot of scientific ground including aspects of physics, chemistry and biology. The practical examples and ‘thought’ experiments he urges us to try are effective and helps us in quickly understanding the point he is trying to explain.
It would be a good read for youngsters as a general introduction to science and scientific thought. The use of myths was fascinating to me as they were diverse stories from many different cultures and it added a touch of magic to the whole thing. But what does he mean by the ‘magic of reality’? It is hardly a phrase we would hear, almost paradoxical in fact. Richard Dawkins gives the most sincere and endearing explanation for this:

Illustrations (not in the Paperback) are wonderfully rendered by Dave Mckean 
“The truth is more magical – in the best and most exciting sense of the word – than any myth or made up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic: the magic of reality.”

He terms this kind of magic as ‘poetic’ magic – something which creates wonder and joy in one’s soul. Science in its noblest pursuits does indeed produce magic, I agree.

It is a light read for most of us, and will leave us recalling our high school science and a bit more. It isn’t too heavy on scientific terminology and therefore is very readable. However, one point is to be noted – the author does question certain cultural myths and religious facts. Apparently he is famous for religion-bashing, but I realize that as a scientist he does what he knows best and explains the world in the most rational and scientific way. So, in case that is a sore point I would advise one to take the book with a pinch of salt.

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