Richard Dawkins and the Magic of Reality

The third scientist ever to give a talk at the Royal Albert Hall in London made his debut on Wednesday this week (October 19), when Richard Dawkins took to the stage.

Following in the footsteps of Albert Einstein, the first scientist to speak at the venue, and Stephen Hawking, Dawkins was there in the wake of the launch of his new book, The Magic of Reality.

This latest book is very different to his earlier offerings, which include The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, in that it is essentially a beautifully illustrated introduction to, and celebration of, science, with stunning full-colour images on every page.

In The Magic of Reality, Dawkins aims to convey the wonder of science to readers of all ages, from ‘children right through to octogenarians’, and the first half of the evening saw him talking through some aspects of his book, followed by an interview with James Harding, editor of the Times.

Explaining his thinking behind the book to the packed auditorium I was sitting in, which whooped and applauded when he walked on stage, Dawkins began: “The magic of reality, what is it, what kind of magic are we talking about?

“Certainly not the magic of fairytales and spells, not the magic of Harry Potter.

“Nor is it the stage magic of Derren Brown, Penn and Teller. The conjuring feats of Penn and Teller give an appearance of supernatural miracles but we know they are only tricks.

“No, the magic of reality is a different sense entirely. I thought of it as a book for children but I like to think that adults would be able to understand it too.”

Dave McKean’s illustrations in The Magic of Reality bring science to life

Each of the ten chapters starts off with a question, such as ‘Who was the first person?’, and Dawkins begins every section by mentioning some of the myths which humans through the ages have used to explain these questions, before debunking them with the scientific answer and evidence.

“The idea of talking about myths is not to mock them, they are wonderful in their way, but the scientific truth is even more wonderful,” said Dawkins.

“It’s not a question that deserves to be asked”

During the interview, Harding mentioned a radio discussion Dawkins had recently taken part in, Andrew Marr’s Start the Week on BBC Radio 4, which also featured chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks among its guests.

Harding said that Sacks had said that science may explain how the world works, but religion explained why things happened.

Dawkins replied that although some ‘why’ questions could be turned into how questions, and science could answer those, he dismissed the ‘whys’, saying: “It’s not a question that deserves to be asked.”

When Harding asked whether, taking the analogy of an opera, science was the lyrics but religion, the more emotive side of things, was the music, Dawkins said: “There’s plenty of music in the universe. Science is massively poetic. It’s a beautiful subject for poetic language, for music even.

“Can you imagine what Beethoven’s Evolution Symphony would have been like, or Bach’s Big Bang Cantata?”

“To hell with whether it’s useful, it’s fascinating”

Whether or not science is dumbing down was a topic that seemed to get Dawkins’ blood up.

“Do you think we have a problem in this country in terms of how we teach science?” asked Harding.

“I must be careful here because there are professional educators who have thought about this a lot,” said Dawkins. “I’m slightly disturbed about how administrators who work in education policy have started to focus on these areas that would help you to read a newspaper, like climate change.

“The idea is a noble one, that people can understand what’s going on in the paper, like global warming. But I would be sorry if science education was confined only to useful, particularly relevant science.

“I would hate it if they lose sight of fundamental science, explaining the universe, geology. To hell with whether it’s useful, it’s fascinating.

“You can’t dumb down. Einstein said everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler. Let’s not just do the bits that are fun.”

He added: “What matters is what’s true and sometimes you have to work hard to understand what’s true.

“I would like to see people marvelling at the world. We need people to appreciate science, and understand how beautiful the world is.”

© Melanie Hall 2017