Saturday, November 26, 2011

Richard Dawkins and The Magic of Reality

The Magic of Reality - Opening Page

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True
is a book by Richard Dawkins with illustrations by Dave McKean. The book poses and answers twelve common questions about everyday life. First, possible answers to each question are given from myths and then, the real answer in the form of an engaging scientific explanation follows. The idea is that the scientific explanation is not only real but much more magical. You can experience the book as a book, as an audiobook or (magically?) as a digital book / application on an iPad - which is what we review here.

The Message

The message of the book is that science has it’s own magic and that magic is reality. Mythology - of all color and stripe - is not necessary to explain reality when you have science. The book’s message is targeted at an audience from early teens onward who are interested in science and understanding some fundamental questions like What are Things Made Of? (Chapter 4), What is the Sun? (Chapter 6), Are we Alone? (Chapter 9), or What is an Earthquake? (Chapter 10). The book tackles twelve basic questions about reality, answering them in an easy to understand language that uses analogies and illustrations, and audio and video in the iPad application.

Even though the purpose of the book is to dispel of myths in favor of science, the descriptions of myths turns out to be somewhat, shall we say, endearing. Yes, Dawkins dispatches with them as not necessary to explain the phenomena in question, but the presentation of them works both in word and illustration. The illustrations, some of them animated, are engaging and complimentary of the myths. Overall, experiencing the imagery and text woven together is quite effective. Maybe Dawkins and McKean should work on a book of myths. It could be interesting.

The Magic of Reality - Chapter 12 - Hume 
Image from Chapter 12 – Dave Hume

Unfortunately, the mention of Richard Dawkins is enough to raise the hackles of a good number of people and I’m sure he could care less. Richard Dawkins is, among other things, an atheist. To quote a recent study, Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society (AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW, 2006, VOL. 71 (April:211–234)), that a friend sent us: “[u]sing new national survey data, it [the study] shows atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups.” So Dawkins’ outspokenness in his atheism automatically brings with it condemnation of any work from him, no matter how worthy. It’s a shame, because for readers who don’t invoke a higher power for describing events like rainbows or earthquakes, much of the book is informative and entertaining. Granted, for creationists or believers in miracles, the book will be hard to read. And speaking of miracles, they are covered (really, dispatched with) in the concluding chapter What is a Miracle? In this chapter, Dawkins discusses among other topics, the maxim from the Scottish thinker David Hume (1711 - 1776) regarding testimony and miracles is discussed. The maxim states “[t]hat no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.” It’s a handy maxim to keep in mind for many things.

Overall, the content of the the Magic of Reality is going to be of interest to a young science-inclined reader or even an adult reader who might be embarrassed about his grasp of basic questions covered in this book.

The Medium

The Magic of Reality - Chapter 6 - Egyptian Legend
Image from Chapter 6 – Egyptian Legend for the Sun and Moon Cycle

The medium is the message is the famous phrase by Marshall McLuhan and we didn’t want the medium is the distraction to be the case with this book. Assuming that there is some base level of learning to extract from an effort like The Magic of Reality, we don’t know if “experiencing” the application on the iPad was better than if we had read the book or listened to the audiobook. (What is the right consumption verb for a digital book/application? ) Learning in our experience is quite situational and dependent on which combination of senses you get the most lit up on. The Magic of Reality application hits on the visual, aural, and tactile senses (taste and smell we’ll have to wait on) and so as conventional thinking goes it engages more senses, so has a greater opportunity for impact. The challenge is that the iPad is a medium that we typically used for fractured, asynchronous tasks like a little browsing, a little communicating, a little gaming, a little reading. Fractured tasks work against the immersive experience that a good learning experience requires. However, these temptations can be overcome with some discipline. Turn off the push notifications and resist the urge to play the next word in Words with Friends.

The iPad application blurs the boundary of what a book is as it naturally leverages interactive features (touch), audio, and video of the iPad. Images on the iPad can be especially vibrant, and in this respect the digital book/application works well because of the fantastic illustrations by David McKean. Some of the illustrations are static and some are “dynamic” in that they flutter or grow, weaving in and around the text.

Most chapters have some interactive part as well that is either a demonstration or a game to help drive home the chapters main question. Some of the games work, some don’t and we thought a few were not necessary. For example, in Chapter 3 (evolution) you are presented with a game to get some floating iguanas to shore by imitating the wind and blowing into the microphone. It felt a little silly. In Chapter 7 (rainbows), the game initially crashed the application. (It was later fixed with an update.) Can you crash a real book? It’s like every time you turned to a certain page in a real book it flopped out of your hands and on to the floor and you had to reach down and pick it up. Overall, the less successful interactive parts don’t distract from the text and imagery which really is the heart of the book.

The Magic of Reality - Navigation
Example Image from Chapter 7 Showing Navigation

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