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Richard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality


Richard Dawkins, evolutionary zoologist, Professor at Oxford University until 2008, Fellow of The Royal Society and Royal Society of Literature, first caught the public attention with his ground-breaking and controversial book The Selfish Gene in 1976. It was followed by a string of bestsellers including The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth. Now he has turned his attention to a younger audience with his book The Magic of Reality and it does not disappoint. Sue Unstead reports.


I


meet Richard Dawkins at his home in Oxford where, perhaps unsurprisingly, animals are all around, from busy little Tiger, the dog that greets me noisily at the door, to the galloping horse and leaping hare, gaily painted carousel animals that adorn the room. I hesitate


to go straight in to the question of a younger audience, being all-too familiar with the implied suggestion that writing for children is somehow dealing with a lower order of species. I have already noted his quick response both to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and to Mariella Frostrup on The Book Programme: ‘Why children? Why not, after all children are people and they are a very important audience.’ Instead I ask him whether the book was prompted by a concern about a lack of understanding about science and the way in which it is taught in schools today. Dawkins is disarmingly frank when he reveals that he is not close enough to the teaching of science to comment, but he does say that an important motive was coming across schoolchildren, particularly those of an Islamic background who reject the whole concept of evolution ‘which distresses me hugely’. More worrying still were the children who seemed ‘wantonly, perversely anti-science’. In fact the idea for pitching a book at a younger age group had occurred some 18 years ago: ‘When my daughter was 10, I wrote an open letter to her called “Good and Bad reasons for believing”.’ It was published and was well received, and later formed the final chapter for an adult book The Devil’s Chaplain. Other projects took priority and the whole idea for a book for a younger audience was shelved until now.


In The Magic of Reality Dawkins sets out to show ‘that the real world, as understood scientifically has a magic of its own, an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we understand how it works.’ The result is an inspiring introduction to science, not just for children but for a family audience. There is a wonderful clarity to Dawkins’ approach as he explores complex ideas about space, time and evolution in a lucid and accessible way. Each of the twelve chapters begins with a question: ‘What are things made of?’, ‘What is the sun?’, ‘Why is there night and day, winter and summer?’ and in more abstract terms ‘Why do bad things happen?’ Seemingly simple questions open the door for subjects that range from DNA and the Doppler effect to planets, plate tectonics, star birth and the chaos theory.


The fundamental questions of existence


From the outset Richard Dawkins establishes a strong authorial voice. His tone is relaxed and conversational, often including personal anecdotes about his own childhood. I ask him whether he had an


10 Books for Keeps No.192 January 2012


audience in mind. ‘One of the keys to good writing is to constantly have an audience in your mind as you write, and I find myself re-reading over and over so that the end result is filtered by many imaginary readers.’ The approach does not seem so very different from that of his adult books, at least those for the lay reader such as The Selfish Gene. Dawkins says he hadn’t really modified his style, ‘although sometimes I hesitated about a long word. But isn’t part of the joy of reading discovering new words?’ He is careful always to explain words in context, with the result that a glossary, so often an escape clause, is never missed.


With a childhood in Africa and then growing up on a farm in England, I wondered whether this had inspired him to be a scientist. ‘Rather to my regret, I was never a child naturalist as my father had been,’ though this modest assertion is somewhat belied by his description in the book of dissecting the corpse of a weasel or a mole to marvel at the wriggling mass of nematode worms while noting this was never true of the domesticated rats they were given to dissect in biology lessons. ‘I didn’t shine at school. It was only when I got to Oxford that I suddenly took off and became extremely enthusiastic about science as a means of answering the fundamental questions of existence.’ This philosophical approach to science is clear in all that he writes.


Myths from around the world


Myths, and the debunking of them, play a large part in the book as Dawkins explores how people invented stories to explain what seemed to them mysterious or magical events, whether earthquakes, shooting stars or tidal waves. Dawkins clearly enjoys the quirkiness of some of


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