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In this ambitious book, richly and imaginatively illustrated throughout by Dave McKean, Dawkins sets himself the task of answering some of the really big question of life, exactly the sort of questions you hear from the mouths of children including “Are we alone?” and “Why do bad things happen?”
Over the course of 12 chapters Dawkins tackles these questions head on, also exploring key aspects of space, time and evolution along the way. He begins almost every chapter with examples of myths (from all over the world, from all different sorts of traditions) about the topic in question before moving on to explore the scientific explanation for the phenomenon under discussion.
This video gives a great summary of the book from Dawkins himself:
The Magic of Reality is no dry academic tract. Rather Dawkins takes on the role (almost) of intimate storyteller. He adopts an informal, colloquial manner focusing throughout the book on showing us what he calls the “poetic magic” of science, that which is “deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more alive.”
Dawkins’ friendly tone and his inclusion of stories about rainbows, earthquakes and the seasons make The Magic of Reality an eminently readable book, especially for readers with no or little background knowledge. There’s a lot of the pace, suspense and beauty you might associate with a great novel in Dawkins’ book. Indeed, Dawkins really seems to me to be trying to tell a story (albeit a true one) rather than simply sharing and contextualising a lot of scientific facts.
Perhaps a conscious decision to make the book read like a story is behind the decision not to include any footnotes, suggested further reading or bibliography. This I found frustrating; Dawkins’ succeeded in getting me curious, getting me asking questions about the issues he discusses, and although I would have liked to know more, he doesn’t provide any suggestion for where to go next. That said, the lack of references does help the book flow and feel quite unlike a hard hitting science book (though that is exactly what it is).
As a result of reading The Magic of Reality I got out our prisms and made rainbows with M and J - for them it really was magic to see the colours appear "from nowhere"
Dawkins’ storytelling approach also means that The Magic
SLJ represent! Though I could not attend this year’s KidLitCon (the annual conference of children’s and YA bloggers) many others did and they have all posted links to their recaps of the event here. So while I could not be present, fellow SLJ blogger Liz Burns of Tea Cozy showed up and has a fabulous encapsulation of that which went on. Lest you label me a lazy lou, I did at least participate in a presentation on apps. Yes, doing my best Max Headroom imitation (ask you parents, kids) I joined Mary Ann Scheuer and pink haired Paula Wiley. It went, oddly enough, off without a hitch. Attendees may have noticed my gigantic floating head (we Skyped) would occasionally dip down so that I seemed to be doing my best Kilroy imitation. This was because the talk happened during my lunch and I wanted to nosh on some surreptitious grapes as it occurred. You may read Mary Ann’s recap here and Paula’s here, lest you fail to believe a single word I say.
Speaking of Penderwicks, the discussions fly fast and fierce over at Heavy Medal. To my infinite delight, both Jonathan AND Nina are Penderwick fans. Wow! For the record, I agree with their thoughts on Amelia Lost as well. That book has a better chance at something Newberyish than any other nonfiction this year. This could well be The Year of Amelias (Jenni Holm has an Amelia book of her own, after all).
Heads up, America! According to an article in The Guardian, “The debt-laden businesses behind some of the biggest names in childrens’ TV and books are selling off some of the nation’s best-loved characters.” Personally, I figure the Brits can keep their Peppa Pig. It’s Bagpuss I want. Or The Clangers. I grew up watching Pinwheel on Nickelodeon so I’ve an affection for these. Any word on the current state of King Rollo?
Aw yeah. Authors talking smack about authors. Granted it’s living authors talking about dead authors (dead authors talking about living authors is a different ballgame entirely) but it’ll stand. Two dude who write for kids break down J.M. Barrie, The Yearling, etc. and then end with unanimous praise for what I may consider the world’s most perfect children’s book. Go check ‘em out.
This is the fourth in our series of podcasts. Dawkins has talked about a wide range of scientists before, and now he introduces us to Fred Hoyle, one of the astronomers who originally proposed the steady state theory of the universe. The steady state theory may have been disproved, but Hoyle’s contributions to science–and science fiction–still remain.
Transcript after the jump. DORIAN DEVINS: Outside of the realm of biology, you have a lot of physicists and mathematicians as well, and it struck me that you have Fred Hoyle in here—a lot of people may not be familiar with Fred Hoyle.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, Fred Hoyle was an English astronomer, astrophysicist. He was one of the three physicists who proposed the steady state theory of the universe, which is now out of fashion. Indeed, it’s almost certainly wrong, disproved by the evidence. But it was a very, very interesting theory. According to the steady state theory, there never was a beginning to the universe. The universe has always been in existence; and the expanding universe, the galaxies pulling apart, that is true, but the gaps between the galaxies get filled with spontaneously created new matter, so there are new galaxies being created in the gaps that are left as the other, older galaxies pull apart. Now, that theory is wrong, but it was never obviously silly. You might think “Well how on Earth can matter just spontaneously be created?” And Hoyle’s point was well that’s no more odd than the idea that it should be spontaneously created in the first place, at the time of the Big Bang. So it was an interesting theory; its now been disproved. He had another great claim to fame, which was that he worked out how the elements, the chemical elements, are formed in the interior of stars. We now know that in this case, Hoyle was absolutely right, that all the elements apart for hydrogen and helium I think, are made in the interior of stars. And we’re all made of star stuff, that was the poetic phrase that Carl Sagan used to quote. I think maybe he got it from Joni Mitchell or the other way around. But anyway, that all comes from Fred Hoyle. He was also a science fiction writer. His first science fiction book, The Black Cloud, is a wonderful story. I mean it’s just a feast, it’s just a riveting science fiction story marred by the fact that its hero is such a deeply unpleasant character. And all the heroes of Fred Hoyle’s science fiction books are the same deeply unpleasant character, you can’t help wondering where that unpleasant character came from.
Do we really need agnosticism nowadays? The inventor of the name ‘agnosticism’, the Victorian evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley, certainly found it useful to have a word describing his lack of certainty when he was surrounded by those who seemed to have no such doubt. But then he lived in a period of transition. Science, and in particular biology, appeared to undermine old certainties. On the one hand, churchmen were promoting the importance of unshakeable faith. On the other, there were philosophers advocating a materialist and anti-religious outlook. Huxley felt he couldn’t identify with either side. If the Gnostics were those who claimed to have access to a special route to religious knowledge, then Huxley would be an a-gnostic, one who does not profess to know. But perhaps agnosticism served only as a temporary stopping point en route to a more satisfactory position, a stepping stone from faith to atheism.
For Richard Dawkins, a scientist, writer and today’s perhaps most vocal atheist, we have already crossed that river. It was perhaps reasonable to be an agnostic in Huxley’s time, when it was not yet clear how science could answer some of the awkward questions posed by believers: How, if there is no divine designer, could intelligence have developed? What is the source of our moral conscience? Why was the universe so congenial to the emergence of life? Now we have some detailed answers, the idea of God is de trop. And so too is agnosticism, apparently.
What is Dawkins’ thinking here? First, the agnostic’s point that we can’t know whether or not God does not exist, is not a very interesting one. There are lots of things we don’t know for sure. We don’t know that Mars isn’t populated by fairies. Of course, we are not remotely inclined to believe that it is, but still we don’t have conclusive proof. Nevertheless, we don’t describe ourselves as agnostics about Martian fairies. Similarly, atheists can admit that they don’t have conclusive proof of God’s non-existence.
Second, not having conclusive proof does not make God’s existence just as probable as his non-existence. Moving from ‘not certain’ to ‘50/50 chance either way’ is what we might call the agnostic fallacy.
Third, a necessary feature of God makes his existence highly improbable, namely his complexity. Of course, the world itself is complex – unimaginably so – but then science has an explanation of this complexity in terms of a series of gradual evolutionary steps from simpler states. In contrast there is no evolutionary account of God’s complexity: his nature is supposed to be eternal. And that there should just exist such complexity, with no explanation, is highly improbable.
That’s a very plausible line of thought. The conclusion is that, unless you think you have overwhelming evidence for God, the rational thing is to be an atheist. But it rests on a questionable assumption. There is still room for an interesting form of agnosticism. Take a look at the third point above: that God must be complex, and so improbable. It is a part of traditional theology that God is in fact simple. Dawkins finds this incredible: how can something responsible for the creation of the world, and who has perfect knowledge of it, be less complex than that creation? There are, however, different kinds of complexity. A language is complex in one sense, in that it contains a virtually limitless range of possible expressions. But those expressions are generated from a finite number of letters, and a finite number of rules concerning the construction of sentences. A language may be complex in its variety but (relatively) simple with respect to the components and principles that give rise to that complexity. When the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz opined that God had created ‘the best of all possible worlds’, his
What do scientists say about the “soul”? How does Richard Dawkins answer the question “why are we here?” In Part 2 of this series on religion, Steve Paulson (of NPR fame) reflects on the biggest questions in the ongoing science vs. religion debate. Part 1 can be found here.
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Writing huts! We all have them. And by “all” I mean “Laurie Halse Anderson”. But famous authors of the past also have had magnificent writing huts and one of them belonged to Roald Dahl. Now Dahl’s granddaughter Sophie is leading a fund-raiser to restore and relocate the hut. I would think she need only appeal to Wes Anderson for her needs. He’s a Dahl hut fan, this I know. Thanks to Playing By the Book for the link.
So this past Saturday was the Kidlitosphere Conference. Due to my maternity leave I was unable to attend but I did at least present via Skype a panel alongside Mary Ann Scheuer of Great Kid Books and Paula Wiley of Pink Me about children’s book apps. To begin, we showed this video for The Three Little Pigs, a pop-up version based on the book by Leslie Brooke. It is one of the smarter app trailers out there, and possibly my favorite.
Big time thanks to Paula Wiley for the link!
Speaking of trailers, I was a big fan of last year’s Blexbolex book Seasons. Here’s a trailer for the newest title by the Frenchman, People. I love the connections made between the images.
Recently Jules at 7-Imp wrote a fabulous post on Jack Gantos and his ambassadorial possibilities. Jack Gantos is a charming fellow, and well worth the price if you can ever hear him speak. Case in point, he recently presented at the Center for Children’s & Young Adult Literature (CCYAL) at the University of Tennessee’s first annual Focus on Children’s Literature Conference on April 2, 2011. Here’s a taste of what he was offering:
So. Richard Dawkins wrote a book for kids. Were you aware of this? Nor I. But here’s a trailer for it and everything. The art was by none other than Dave McKean (The Wolves in the Walls, etc.). The jury is out. Has anyone seen this?
Richard Dawkins is the bestselling author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. He’s also a pre-eminent scientist, the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and is a fellow of New College, Oxford. Called “Darwin’s Rottweiler” by the media, he is one of the most famous advocates of Darwinian evolution. His most recent book is The Oxford Guide to Modern Science Writing, a collection of the best science writing in the last century.
DORIAN DEVINS: Alan Turing, another British scientist, computer mathematician…
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes. Alan Turing. Well, one of the fathers of the modern computer. So Turing was, I suppose, the nearest British approach to the father of the modern computer, apart from [Charles] Babbage in the 19th Century. Turing was the leading code-breaker in the Second World War at the Bletchley Park code-breaking establishment, which was phenomenally successful in breaking German codes. The famous Enigma code that the Germans used—the Germans never realized that their Enigma code had been broken. And the result of breaking the Enigma code was that Allied British and American generals would sometimes get German orders more or less at the same time as German generals were getting them. So it was a most extraordinarily valuable contribution to the Allied war effort. However, Turing committed suicide after the war because he was arrested for homosexual activity, and in those days in Britain, homosexual behavior was illegal. And Turing, who should have been given a medal and a knighthood, feted as the savior of his nation, was instead arrested for homosexuality and was given a choice between a two year prison sentence or being given a course of hormone injections which would have had some kind of feminizing effect and would have made him grow breasts. He chose instead to eat an apple that he’d injected with cyanide. One of the most tragic stories in British science. He was a great mathematician, a brilliant mathematician, a brilliant philosopher, and one of his contributions was the Turing Machine. Another one was the Turing Test, the hypothetical test for whether a computer could think; the so-called Turing Test, where you have a human in one room and an entity, which might be a computer and might be another human in another room, communicating by teleprinter. And the task of the real human, the subject, is to discover whether what he’s talking to is a computer or another human. The Turing Test, if the computer passes the Turing Test, what it means is that a human can’t tell the difference between the computer and another human. And the Turing Test you very often find mentioned in philosophical works about the nature of consciousness and machine intelligence.
DEVINS: It’s quite interesting to be able to read something by him, rather than just about him too.
DAWKINS: Yes. He was a real eccentric, a very, very strange man, and as I say, his downfall and his death is one of the most tragic and actually wicked stories that I know.