Few scientists manage to reach a huge popular audience. Even among them Richard Dawkins is distinctive for the clarity and elegance of his prose. The Magic of Reality, an introduction to science, is as good an example of his expository gifts as he has written. It will be appreciated by inquisitive children while illuminating much for the adult general reader.
The hardback edition, published last year, was filled with colourful illustrations by Dave McKean. The paperback retains only a few small black-and-white images for chapter frontispieces. It is a tribute to Dawkins that his explanations lose no force in this more utilitarian packaging.
Each of the dozen chapters focuses on a big question that inevitably occurs to the inquiring mind. Dawkins’s theme is that science is not prosaic but has “an inspiring beauty that is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works”. By reading the book, non-specialists will genuinely come to understand concepts such as the movement of molecules and how raindrops create rainbows. It’s near impossible not to relish the economy of Dawkins’s explanations. An especially fine chapter asks who the first person was. With an instinct for analogy, Dawkins explains natural selection across geological ages by imagining a stack of photographs of the reader’s 185,000,000 great-grandparents, back to our fishy forebears.
Critics fault Dawkins for not grasping that science and religion seek to answer different questions. Yet the obtuseness lies with them. Dawkins cites David Hume’s magisterial explanation of why accounts of the miraculous — of literal magic — can’t be given credence. They are explanations, of a sort, and don’t work. Dawkins shows that they are also dreary stuff compared with the explanations that do work.
*The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, Black Swan, 267pp, £8.99; e-book, £6.49. To buy this book for £8.54 visit the times.co.uk/bookshop or call 08452712134