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Book Review - The Magic of Reality

I really wanted to like Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, and parts of it I did, but in other parts I was disappointed.

The good - Richard Dawkins has a knack for coming up with really good, easy to understand explanations for difficult subjects. For example, in the chapter on 'Who was the first person?', he asked the reader to imagine a stack of photos starting with your mother, then grandmother, then great grandmother, and on and on. Each photo would look pretty similar to the one that came before it, but also a little bit different. Go back far enough, and you'll find an ancestor that no longer looks human, but at no point would any photos look terribly different from those around them. In other words, if you picked photos thousands of generations apart, you'd be able to say that there had definitely been change, but going through photo by photo you'd never be able to pinpoint a generation where one species became another. I also liked his explanation of orbits. It's the same explanation I've used to explain it to people. Imagine a canon on top of a tower, with the canon aimed parallel to the ground. When you fire it, the canon ball will go some distance before hitting the ground. Fire it faster, and the ball will go farther before hitting the ground. But remember that the Earth is curved, and that it's curving away from the path of the cannonball. So, the faster the ball is initially fired, the more you'll notice that curvature, making it take longer for the ball to hit the ground than if the world were flat. Fire the ball fast enough, and even though it will always be falling, the curved path it takes will match the curve of the earth, and it'll never actually hit the earth (ignoring air resistance). That's an orbit.

The bad - After skimming through the Amazon reviews, it appears that I'm in the minority on this, but I just didn't like the illustrations. Many were collage-like. The drawings of people especially were rather ugly in my opinion. After reading something like Carl Zimmer's The Tangled Bank and seeing all the wonderful illustrations and photos in that book, you realize just how much better this book could have been with better visuals. Just as an example, here's one of the pictures from the book. (Note that I took the picture with my phone, then adjusted the skew and colors on my computer, so apologies for the less than optimum quality. But the distorted looking face is not due to my manipulations - that's how it actually looks in the book.)

Illustration from The Magic of Reality

After reading Dawkins' previous book, The Greatest Show on Earth, and then this one, it seems like he really does have an axe to grind with religion. Now, as anyone who reads this blog will know, I'm no fan of religion myself, but I also recognize that there's a time and place for everything. I rather like the idea that Dawkins compared the actual explanations for how things work to mythical explanations (including myths from the Bible). But I think he should have stopped there. When he specifically denounced religious stories, those sections crossed over from being The Magic of Reality into The God Delusion for Kids. Just to show what I mean, here's an excerpt. Dawkins had just introduced the reader to the Cherry Tree Carol, a story of Jesus commanding a cherry tree to lower its branches to provide Mary with its cherries.

You won't find the cherry-tree story in any ancient holy book. Nobody, literally nobody who is at all knowledgeable or well educated, thinks it is anything but fiction. Plenty of people think the water-into-wine story is true, but everybody agrees that the cherry-tree story is fiction. The cherry-tree story was made up only about 500 years ago. The water-into-wine story is older. It appears in one of the four gospels of the Christian religion (the Gospel of John: none of the other three, as it happens), but there is no reason to believe it is anything but a made-up story - just one made up a few centuries earlier than the one about the cherry tree. All four of the gospels, by the way, were written long after the events that they purport to describe, and not one of them by an eye witness. It is safe to conclude that the water-into-wine story is pure fiction, just like the cherry-tree story.

It's not that I disagree with Dawkins on this point, or that I think children should be shielded from discussions of religion, it's just that I think it was wandering a bit too far from the main focus of this book. For an example of a book that I think spent just the right amount of effort debunking religion without straying too far from the far more interesting true story, consider Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True.

My final criticism involves wondering just who this book is for. Of course, the explicitly anti-religious sections will turn off many people, but even for the more open minded, I'm not sure this book is attractive enough to convince them to read it. The Amazon description states in part that it's for "readers of all ages," so I assume it's for teenagers and adults, especially those that don't yet understand all the phenomena it explains. But I'm not sure how many of those people will actually read the book. I practically begged my wife and daughter to read even just one chapter from the book so that I could get their take on it, since they're almost exactly the target demographic. But I couldn't convince either one to do so. Granted, that's only a sample size of two, but I fear this book will be more preaching to the choir than expanding scientific understanding to the masses.

But like I wrote before, the good parts are very good. So, if you're interested at all in the world around you but don't remember all the lessons from your school science classes, this is probably a good book to read.


Updated 2013-02-04 Modified parenthetical note about illustration to make it clear that I haven't distorted the image.

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