The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins

Review published on July 17, 2012.Reviewed by Erin Britton

Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality begins with a question: if reality is everything that exists, then how do we know what exists?  In many cases this question of existence can be answered easy by recourse to our five senses. Our ability to see, smell, touch, taste and hear provides us with effective means of establishing this reality. However, the question really is: if our senses cannot detect something directly, then how do we know if it’s real? Lots of things can be seen to fall within this puzzle, for example galaxies that are too far away to see, radio waves that cannot be detected by either our eyes or our ears, and even dinosaurs since they are no longer around to be detected by anything.  The answer seems to be that we know all of these things exist due to various methods of often complex investigation, investigation that can ultimately be labelled as science.

Of course, scientific investigation isn’t the only means of explaining the existence of things and so, before science stepped in with an answer, magic was often credited as being involved. The ancient Egyptians for example explained the existence of night by suggesting that the goddess Nut swallowed the sun. Likewise, the Japanese used to explain earthquakes as being caused when the giant catfish that carried the world on its back flipped its tail. These are clearly extraordinary, magical explanations. However, it could be said that a different kind of magic exists in the discovery of the real answers to question of why things happen. With The Magic of Reality Dawkins therefore seeks to demonstrate that the real would, as it can be understood scientifically, has a magic all of its own.

In The Magic of Reality each chapter is dedicated to one particular aspect of reality – whether it be the sun or earthquakes or rainbows or the many species of animals that exists – and investigates how and why that particular thing has come to be. In the chapter concerning “Why do we have night and day, winter and summer?” for example, Dawkins examines the two great rhythms that dominate our lives. He begins with a couple of Aboriginal myths about the day-night cycle as well as the myth of Persephone, before detailing how the seasonal rhythm is explained by the yearly orbiting of the Earth around the sun at a distance of 93 million miles while the daily rhythm is explained by the Earth’s spinning round and round like a top.

The Magic of Reality is an immensely interesting book. Richard Dawkins has taken a host of complex and vital topics and has explained them in a clear, concise manner that would suit both the layman and those with some scientific knowledge. Dawkins provides inspiring explanations of space, time, evolution and other matters within the realm of thought experiments and so uses The Magic of Reality to explain an amazingly wide range of natural phenomena. The breadth of topics covered is immense yet Dawkins’ clear explanative style ensures that all information is presented in an accurate and detailed yet straightforward manner that makes it a pleasure rather than a chore to read.

One potential disappointment with this particular edition of The Magic of Reality is that it is a special text-only edition. The original hardback edition contained delightful and illuminating colour illustrations from Dave McKean [yes, of Hellblazer and Sandman fame]. The quality of the illustrations resulted in the hardback of The Magic of Reality being a truly beautiful as well as informative volume. It is intended to be a book that explains science in a clear and exuberant fashion that appeals to readers of all ages and the inclusion of the illustrations would have served to broaden its appeal, particularly to young readers. There is another, more expensive, paperback edition due out later this year and it seems likely that that one will be illustrated, so it’s worth considering which edition would be most suited to your particular interests.

Despite having lamented the absence of illustrations, the strength of the text of The Magic of Reality must be reiterated. It is a real page-turner of a science book that grips the reader’s imagination from the very beginning and never fails to both enlighten and astonish. The Magic of Reality is an accessible guide to nearly all of the important questions about the nature of life and the universe.


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