“Truth is stranger than fiction.” I have always had an affinity for that old chestnut. What our species creates in art, literature, and film is often constrained by the quirks and contingencies of our experiences, and the strange aspects of the natural world create a wellspring that we constantly draw upon when we want to reach beyond reality. Despite the power of our imaginations, Nature still beats us nine times out of ten when it comes to the beautiful, unusual, and bizarre. That is exactly what author Richard Dawkins and artist Dave McKean pay tribute to in their new collaboration The Magic of Reality.
At first blush, the word “magic” is a strange one to see in the title of a Dawkins book. The evolutionary biologist and writer has been a ceaseless critic of the supernatural, superstitions, and the sacred. Dawkins addresses this early on. He is not talking about the style of magic taught at Hogwart’s, or the amusing illusions of Penn and Teller, but what Dawkins calls “poetic magic” — the wonder inherent in the way things truly are. “Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world,” Dawkins writes, “supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison.” They Might Be Giants reminded us that “Science is real,” and Dawkins hopes to convey to young adult readers that the world science shows us is “Wonderful because [it is] real.”
Naturally, not every aspect of science is appealing to all. I adore dinosaurs, but my math-phobia often causes me to keep fields such as chemistry, physics, and cosmology at arm’s length. I imagine that others feel the opposite way — bring on the formulae and chemical reactions, bury the dinosaurs. Dawkins is wise, therefore, to cast a wide net within science. The easily-accessible fact of evolution kicks things off before Dawkins meanders through questions as general as “What are things made of?” and as specific as “What is an earthquake?” Each one is gorgeously and lavishly illustrated by McKean. This book could have easily looked like a high school science textbook, but McKean’s caricatures, diagrams, and conceptual visualizations are simultaneously accurate and entertaining.
Even better is seeing McKean’s artwork comes to life in the digital version of the book for the iPad. Thought bubbles pop up as Charles Darwin ponders evolution, and interactive portions allow readers (viewers?) to play with light beams, fire an enormous cannon to see the influence of gravity, and put elements under pressure to see how they change. It is one thing to see scientific concepts spelled out for you, but another to read the basic concepts and then play with those ideas virtually. Also gratifying was the simple fact that the text could flow by illustrations so that the relevant image or diagram remained onscreen as I read along, ridding me of the need to flip back to look at important interpretive illustrations I had already passed.
In both formats, though, some of McKean’s best work can be found at the beginning of each chapter. Dawkins begins most chapters with supernatural stories once employed to explain such mundane things as why there should be a day and night. Here McKean transforms tidbits of religious tradition both familiar and obscure into fantastic visions of how our species used to explain the world. And those sections of the book directly hint at the main point Dawkins is driving at. The Magic of Reality is not about delivering a series of answers to everyday questions. Textbooks and even Wikipedia can answer many of those queries. What Dawkins wants to do is use questions that we are continually in awe of to highlight how a scientific way of thinking can actually allow us to approach answers to those mysteries. In our ignorance, we made stories about snakes in gardens, elephants on the backs of turtles, and the caprices of the gods to explain natural phenomena. Now — using the same biological tools of our senses and our minds — we can actually begin to understand the real answers, and knowing those answers does not make the vastness of the universe any less impressive nor does it tarnish the sublime nature of what Charles Darwin saw as “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” throughout the history of life.
Dawkins ties this together in a pair of final chapters — “Why do bad things happen?” and “What is a miracle?” These portions are more abstract than their predecessors, and initially I felt that they were out of place, but they underscore the argument Dawkins builds up from the outset. Science is a way of knowing about reality, and, despite protestations that religion should be on equal footing, it is the best way of knowing we have. This is not to say that science is perfect. Much remains unknown, and the ever-modified hypotheses about Nature remind us that the answers we get are only as good as the questions we ask and the way we go about testing them.
Nor is this to say that everything can or must be expressed in scientific terms — my love for my wife cannot be expressed in an equation, and the way I felt when I saw the Milky Way for the first time cannot be boiled down into a data point. But, given the choice, knowing that an earthquake is related to the constant-dance of the continents and that I am just one of the most recent parts of a 3.6 billion year evolutionary lineage which connects me to every other living thing on the planet is preferable to believing fictional accumulations of oral tradition our species put together in our ignorance.
Science does more to illuminate the wonders of reality — from the workings of our brains to the origins of our planet — than any fictional or supernatural attempt ever has. There truly is magic in reality, and through their new work the team of Dawkins and McKean assure the reader that they, too, have the basic tools to see the deep and truly amazing beauty which can be found everywhere in our curious universe.
Brian Switek is the blogger behind WIRED Science’s Laelaps and Smithsonian magazine’s Dinosaur Tracking, as well as the author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. He is currently working on his next book – A Date With a Dinosaur – about our rapidly-changing understanding of Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and their prehistoric kin.