Thursday, 15 December 2011

Dawkins' new book impresses the kids

The Magic of Reality: How we know what's really true by Richard Dawkins
New Humanist, Nov-Dec 2011
Richard Dawkins has a new book out, his first for “a family audience”, called The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. But is it any good? I turned it over to the experts to find out – my sons Ravinder, 12, and Jaz, nine. Before I tell you what they said, a brief summary: evolution, dinosaurs, natural selection, time, continental drift, rainbows, earthquakes, DNA and the FoxP2 gene, supernova, the Goldilocks zone, the law of averages are among the array of ideas and concepts explained by Dawkins.
Each chapter is headed by a question, such as “what is reality?”, “what are things made of?”, “how did everything begin?”, “who was the first person?”,  and Dawkins begins with mythical answers to them from around the world – because “they are colourful and interesting and real people believed them and some still do” – before explaning the science. Dawkins cleverly uses the fact that we all love a good story to hook the reader before revealing what science has discovered, since “the truth is more magical …than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle”.
My boys, raised on Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series of books by Rick Riordan about the adventures of a young demi-god, needed no persuading that myths and magic can be fun. Equally, as the children of a science writer, they have no trouble distingishing myth from science, and recognise that facts can have their own magic: “I didn’t know my 185,000,000 great grandfather was a fish, 417 million years ago!’ said Ravinder, complaining that they had never taught him this astonishing fact when he did evolution at school.
They also seemed to grasp that some questions are not amenable to a precise scientific answer. They both readily accepted that the question of who was the first person, and when did they live, can’t have a precise answer because it’s like asking, “When does someone stop being a baby and become a toddler?” Dawkins does narrow it down to somewhere between a million and a hundred thousand years ago “when our ancestors were sufficiently different from us that a modern person wouldn’t have been able to breed with them if they had met”, which is all well and good although it did leave me having to explain to the nine-year-old what “breed” means.
The boys wanted to make sure that Dawkins’s collaborator, illustrator Dave McKean, got a special mention for his “fantastic” and “brilliant” illustrations, “which make the book come alive” (their words), because “just seeing them makes you want to look more closely and read the words”. But they warned me not to look at pages 94 and 95 before going to bed “because reality is a bit too real in that picture”. Like a typical adult I ignored them and regretted it: the close-up of dust mites had me scratching all night long.
For Jaz, Dawkins is fun to read “because he writes like he’s talking to you”. Ravinder’s verdict? “This is the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read.” Coming from someone who reads more than I do, that’s some endorsement. Having written a book on quantum physics, I hope that when the boys get round to reading it one day they will see it for what it clearly is, and revise their all-time list. But it seems I’ll just have to accept that with the help of McKean, Dawkins has conjured up a book that deserves the top slot, at least for the time being.