Tag: Richard Dawkins

The Magic of Reality

Cover Image for The Magic of Reality Paperback Edition by Richard Dawkinsby Richard Dawkins

Illustrated by Dave McKean

ISBN 978-1451675047

iTunes https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-magic-of-reality/id461771375?mt=8&uo=4

“Science has its own magic—the magic of reality.”

In The Magic of Reality, biologist Richard Dawkins addresses the science behind occurrences commonly given magical explanations in mythology and folklore. Dawkins contends that the world is poetically magical without needing to be supernatural, and he sets out to make us think differently about how amazing our current scientific knowledge really is. Even more refreshing, he freely admits when there is something that science does not yet fully understand. In twelve chapters, Dawkins introduces a natural phenomenon, such as the rainbow or earthquakes, describes some of the myths used to explain these occurrences in various cultures, and then explains what we really know about why these things happen.

The book is written at a level suitable for older children (iTunes recommends ages 9+), but even the adult reader may find a new perspective in these pages. Dawkins uses scientific thought experiments to get the reader to think differently about commonly known facts. For example, Dawkins asks the reader to stop for a moment and try to image what your 185 million-greats-grandfather looked like. If you imaged anything other than a fish, you might benefit from reading this book. (I imagined an ape, which is far too few greats.) However, some of these thought experiments are difficult to describe or visualize, such as when Dawkins tries to use pins and string to explain why a circle is a special case of an ellipse.

In the paperback edition of this book, to say that it is illustrated by Dave McKean is a bit of an overstatement. The only illustrations are the black and white pictures at the head of each chapter. In fact, most of McKean’s work on this book is only available in the hardcover and iPad editions of the book. The iPad app version of the book is colourfully illustrated and even animated by McKean. The illustrations, animations and in-book games are extremely useful because they concretize some of the thought experiments and concepts that are difficult to explain in words alone. For example, instead of trying to visualize Newton’s famous multi-prism experiment, one of the games gives you the opportunity to recreate it. And instead of trying to describe how the sound of English language has evolved in the last 500 years, the app includes an audio file of a reading from a portion of The Canterbury Tales. If you have an iPad, the app, which is $2 more than the iBook, blows the paperback edition of the book out of the water. The illustrations, animations, games and audio enhancements take the book from merely good to outstanding. But whatever edition you decide to buy, look carefully; there is a great deal of variability with this title.

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensSelected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens

ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6

If you read about atheism, you are probably familiar with the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, and his most famous contemporaries, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. In The Portable Atheist, Hitchens offers readers the opportunity to expand their horizons with an anthology containing 47 essays and excerpts on unbelief. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett are all represented, but Hitchens’ selections range from Greek philosophy (Lucretius) to English poetry (Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin) to modern scientific treatises (Victor Stenger). This collection offers dozens of arguments against the existence of a deity, but it is also a book about the evolution of unbelief in Western culture. By arranging the readings in chronological order rather than by theme, Hitchens creates a history of non-theism which contextualizes the current state of affairs. While the language and style of some of the older readings may be challenging for the modern reader, their contents can also be startling in their continued relevance. Although there are some leavening humourous pieces (Michael Shermer), the book leans towards a scholarly tone.

The book weighs in at a hefty (and somewhat less than portable) 499 pages and yet undoubtedly could have included many more selections. Notably absent are Nietzsche, Voltaire and Bakunin to name only a few. Hitchens briefly introduces each reading in his customary style, but is sometimes sparse on biographical details, perhaps due to space constraints. The index is likewise somewhat cursory for such a lengthy text. As noted by Hitchens himself, the selections are heavy on white men, and Oxonians. Excellent writers from the Jewish and Muslim traditions, including Steven Weinberg, Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are included, but the collection predominantly assumes a Christian background. However, the volume does reflect the wide variety of non-belief from atheism to agnosticism to humanism that has arisen from within these confines.