The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True Hardcover – Oct 4 2011
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
WHAT IS REALITY?
WHAT IS MAGIC?
REALITY IS EVERYTHING that exists. That sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Actually, it isn’t. There are various problems. What about dinosaurs, which once existed but exist no longer? What about stars, which are so far away that, by the time their light reaches us and we can see them, they may have fizzled out?
We’ll come to dinosaurs and stars in a moment. But in any case, how do we know things exist, even in the present? Well, our five senses – sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste – do a pretty good job of convincing us that many things are real: rocks and camels, newly mown grass and freshly ground coffee, sandpaper and velvet, waterfalls and doorbells, sugar and salt. But are we only going to call something ‘real’ if we can detect it directly with one of our five senses?
What about a distant galaxy, too far away to be seen with the naked eye? What about a bacterium, too small to be seen without a powerful microscope? Must we say that these do not exist because we can’t see them? No. Obviously we can enhance our senses through the use of special instruments: telescopes for the galaxy, microscopes for bacteria. Because we understand telescopes and microscopes, and how they work, we can use them to extend the reach of our senses – in this case, the sense of sight – and what they enable us to see convinces us that galaxies and bacteria exist.
How about radio waves? Do they exist? Our eyes can’t detect them, nor can our ears, but again special instruments – television sets, for example – convert them into signals that we can see and hear. So, although we can’t see or hear radio waves, we know they are a part of reality. As with telescopes and microscopes, we understand how radios and televisions work. So they help our senses to build a picture of what exists: the real world – reality. Radio telescopes (and X-ray telescopes) show us stars and galaxies through what seem like different eyes: another way to expand our view of reality.
Back to those dinosaurs. How do we know that they once roamed the Earth? We have never seen them or heard them or had to run away from them. Alas, we don’t have a time machine to show them to us directly. But here we have a different kind of aid to our senses: we have fossils, and we can see them with the naked eye. Fossils don’t run and jump but, because we understand how fossils are formed, they can tell us something of what happened millions of years ago. We understand how water, with minerals dissolved in it, seeps into corpses buried in layers of mud and rock. We understand how the minerals crystallize out of the water and replace the materials of the corpse, atom by atom, leaving some trace of the original animal’s form imprinted on the stone. So, although we can’t see dinosaurs directly with our senses, we can work out that they must have existed, using indirect evidence that still ultimately reaches us through our senses: we see and touch the stony traces of ancient life.
In a different sense, a telescope can work like a kind of time machine. What we see when we look at anything is actually light, and light takes time to travel. Even when you look at a friend’s face you are seeing them in the past, because the light from their face takes a tiny fraction of a second to travel to your eye. Sound travels much more slowly, which is why you see a firework burst in the sky noticeably earlier than you hear the bang. When you watch a man chopping down a tree in the distance, there is an odd delay in the sound of his axe hitting the tree.
Light travels so fast that we normally assume anything we see happens at the instant we see it. But stars are another matter. Even the sun is eight light-minutes away. If the sun blew up, this catastrophic event wouldn’t become a part of our reality until eight minutes later. And that would be the end of us! As for the next nearest star, Proxima Centauri, if you look at it in 2012, what you are seeing is happening in 2008. Galaxies are huge collections of stars. We are in one galaxy called the Milky Way. When you look at the Milky Way’s next-door neighbour, the Andromeda galaxy, your telescope is a time machine taking you back two and a half million years. There’s a cluster of five galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet, which we see through the Hubble telescope spectacularly colliding with each other. But we see them colliding 280 million years ago. If there are aliens in one of those colliding galaxies with a telescope powerful enough to see us, what they are seeing on Earth, at this very moment, here and now, is the early ancestors of the dinosaurs.
Are there really aliens in outer space? We’ve never seen or heard them. Are they a part of reality? Nobody knows; but we do know what kind of things could one day tell us if they are. If ever we got near to an alien, our sense organs could tell us about it. Perhaps somebody will one day invent a telescope powerful enough to detect life on other planets from here. Or perhaps our radio telescopes will pick up messages that could only have come from an alien intelligence. For reality doesn’t just consist of the things we already know about: it also includes things that exist but that we don’t know about yet and won’t know about until some future time, perhaps when we have built better instruments to assist our five senses.
Atoms have always existed, but it was only rather recently that we became sure of their existence, and it is likely that our descendants will know about many more things that, for now, we do not. That is the wonder and the joy of science: it goes on and on uncovering new things. This doesn’t mean we should believe just anything that anybody might dream up: there are a million things we can imagine but which are highly unlikely to be real – fairies and hobgoblins, leprechauns and hippogriffs. We should always be open-minded, but the only good reason to believe that something exists is if there is real evidence that it does.
Models: testing our imagination
There is a less familiar way in which a scientist can work out what is real when our five senses cannot detect it directly. This is through the use of a ‘model’ of what might be going on, which can then be tested. We imagine – you might say we guess – what might be there. That is called the model. We then work out (often by doing a mathematical calculation) what we ought to see, or hear, etc. (often with the help of measuring instruments) if the model were true. We then check whether that is what we actually do see. The model might literally be a replica made out of wood or plastic, or it might be a piece of mathematics on paper, or it might be a simulation in a computer. We look carefully at the model and predict what we ought to see or hear, etc. if the model were correct. Then we look to see whether the predictions are right or wrong. If they are right, this increases our confidence that the model really does represent reality; we then go on to devise further experiments, perhaps refining the model, to test the findings further and confirm them. If our predictions are wrong, we reject the model, or modify it and try again.
Here’s an example. Nowadays, we know that genes – the units of heredity – are made of stuff called DNA. We know a great deal about DNA and how it works. But you can’t see the details of what DNA looks like, even with a powerful microscope. Almost everything we know about DNA comes indirectly from dreaming up models and then testing them.
Actually, long before anyone had even heard of DNA, scientists already knew lots about genes from testing the predictions of models. Back in the nineteenth century, an Austrian monk called Gregor Mendel did experiments in his monastery garden, breeding peas in large quantities. He counted the numbers of plants that had flowers of various colours, or that had peas that were wrinkly or smooth, as the generations went by. Mendel never saw or touched a gene. All he saw were peas and flowers, and he could use his eyes to count different types. He invented a model, which involved what we would now call genes (though Mendel didn’t call them that), and he calculated that, if his model were correct, in a particular breeding experiment there ought to be three times as many smooth peas as wrinkly ones. And that is what he found when he counted them. Leaving aside the details, the point is that Mendel’s ‘genes’ were an invention of his imagination: he couldn’t see them with his eyes, not even with a microscope. But he could see smooth and wrinkled peas, and by counting them he found indirect evidence that his model of heredity was a good representation of something in the real world. Later scientists used a modification of Mendel’s method, working with other living things such as fruit flies instead of peas, to show that genes are strung out in a definite order, along threads called chromosomes (we humans have forty-six chromosomes, fruit flies have eight). It was even possible to work out, by testing models, the exact order in which genes were arranged along chromosomes. All this was done long before we knew that genes were made of DNA.
Nowadays we know this, and we know exactly how DNA works, thanks to James Watson and Francis Crick, plus a lot of other scientists who came after them. Watson and Crick could not see DNA with their own eyes. Once again, they made their discoveries by imagining models and testing them. In their case, they literally built metal and cardboard models of what DNA might look like, and they calculated what certain measurements ought to be if those models were correct. The pr... --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
"I wanted to write this book but I wasn't clever enough. Now I've read it, I am"
“Exhilarating. The clearest and most beautifully written introduction to science I've ever read. Again and again I found myself saying "Oh! So that's how genes work!" (or stars, or tectonic plates, or all the other things he explains). Explanations I thought I knew were clarified; things I never understood were made clear for the first time. My favourite adjective of praise has always been "clear", and this book has clarity all the way through.”
—Philip Pullman, author of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and the His Dark Materials trilogy
“I am often asked to recommend good books on science for young people. From now on, I will not have to hesitate. The Magic of Reality provides a beautiful, accessible and wide ranging volume that addresses the questions that all of us have about the universe, separating often too-little known facts from too-frequently believed fictions. For this reason it should be a powerful resource for people of all ages, written with the masterful and eloquently literate style of perhaps the best popular expositor of science, Richard Dawkins, and delightfully illustrated by Dave McKean. What more could anyone ask for?”
—Lawrence Krauss is Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and the author most recently of Quantum Man, and A Universe from Nothing
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Top Customer Reviews
"The truth is more magical--on the best and most exciting sense of the word--than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic: the magic of REALITY."
The above extract comes at the very end of this extraordinary book by Richard Dawkins with illustrations by Dave McKean. Dawkins is a British ethologist (the scientific study of animal behaviour), evolutionary biologist and author. He is emeritus fellow of New College, a constituent college of the University of Oxford in the UK and was this university's Professor for the Public Understanding of Science from 1995 to 2008. McKean has illustrated and designed many award-winning books and graphic novels.
The chapters of this book are titled by a question like "What is the sun?" or "Why are there so many different kinds of animals?" Most chapters usually begin with some mythical answers to a chapter title question. (Amazingly, many people today believe these mythical answers.) Then a scientific or reality-based answer to the question is provided.
Who can read this book? Anyone aged 120 to 12 (including those adults who still think like children). For those with a solid science background, this book can be regarded as a good review of important concepts.
The myths chosen for this book are from around the world such as Babylonian, Judeo-Christian, Aztec, Maori, Aboriginal, Nordic, Hellenic, Chinese, and Japanese. One chapter includes modern alien abduction mythology and another chapter omits mythology altogether (there is a reason for this omission and Dawkins explains why).Read more ›
Metaphorically, neither did humanity until science came around. In both cases (mine and humanity's), science provided the tool for which to measure how reliable an explanation was in relation to another. How to compare two otherwise equal explanations based on explanatory and predictive power based on reliable data. This book pits common stories of creation and causation on a whole rage of topics, from the origins of species, to what we are made of, to the cycles of seasons and day/night. Most of the chapters start off with a "magical" explanation that is based on religion. All religions are represented here, including ancient and/or tribal religions. The book then moves on to explaining the phenomenon in question using simple, logical science.
I've rated this book five stars, but for two important audiences, it won't be.
First, for experienced scientists or science readers, this book will be pretty low-level. It's aimed at people who aren't familiar with science and its explanations (e.g., Dawkins cites ~20% of Europeans don't know how long it takes us to orbit the sun, and why- this is the book for them). It would also work well for younger readers. I can see ages 12+ absorbing this book quite well.Read more ›
I think this book is a beautiful way to give kids tools to judge for their selves.
I come from South America. My family is Roman Catholic. As a child I was sent to “study” Catechism but I didn’t make it to the end. I was fired.
During my catechism classes, I once asked the priest how come he could believe somebody could walk on water. Then, I continued, do you really believe that? Is that what you say serious?
As I was asking questions, the priest sent me back home three times. After the third time not even my grandma could talk the priest into letting me in again.
My grandma was very worry because of the church and what people would say and of course my future in hell. I was sad too but not for the same reasons. At that time, I didn’t understand too much about religion or heaven or hell.
I was also sad because it was the first time I had to deal with rejection and on top of that I’ve lost all the friends I have made during few Catechism classes.
I tell you this story because if, as a kid, I had have an idea about how we know what is really true, I would have been equipped to judge by myself and better deal with it.
I read The Magic of Reality in 2012 I now buy it as a gift for the first communion of my niece.
Most recent customer reviews
Easy to understand. Hasn't finished the reading yet but feel the urge to recommend it to those who are religious.Published 11 days ago by CJ
This Dawkins book is a delight to read and stimulates the brain with complex theories explained in simple terms. A nice buy.Published 1 month ago by Gary W.
My dad really appreciated getting this as a gift. He loves this authorPublished 2 months ago by Vegan and proud
Buyer Beware!!!!! None of those good illustrations relating to the text in this paperback version... What's the point... Returned! Read morePublished 4 months ago by Rejean A Dunn-Asselin
Caution: This is not a fully illustrated edition. The text is great but I was disappointed that it did not have all of the illustrations that were in an earlier edition. Read morePublished 6 months ago by James E Crist
A truly magical book about our reality. Dawkins explains the science of our world in simple yet detailed ways, while also telling us how our ancestors explained these same... Read morePublished 6 months ago by Amanda
Review courtesy of www.subtleillumination.com
There are some amazing things in nature, things we typically take for granted: rainbows, the seasons, earthquakes, matter... Read more