Have you caught any episodes of Cosmos, featuring the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson? If you haven’t, you should. The show, an update to Carl Sagan’s classic 1980 series, aired a year ago and is available on a variety of streaming services. Recently I’ve been watching the series on DVD.
You don’t have to be a kid to get a lot out of this series. In science, we’re all kids. A good scientist is somebody who has redeveloped from scratch many times the chain of reasoning of how we know what we know, just to see where there are holes. So it can never hurt to revisit great scientific explanations like the ones Tyson shares. They help bolster your confidence in what you understand about how the world works. They help you consolidate your knowledge of how insights from physics, chemistry, and biology all fit together. They help you see science as approachable and not just endlessly complicated.
The Cosmos production team, which includes Sagan’s wife, clearly understands this. They did a great job of bringing the wonders of space and time to people with different levels of knowledge. And Tyson’s lifelong passion for scientific discovery comes through loud and clear.
Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who held the Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University endowed by my friend Charles Simonyi, has a similar gift for making science enjoyable. I’ve read many of his books over the years, including The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. His antagonistic (and, to me, overzealous) view of religion has earned him a lot of angry critics, but I consider him to be one of the great scientific writer/explainers of all time.
I recently had a chance to read his book The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. The book is as accessible as Cosmos is for younger audiences—and as relevant for older audiences. It’s an engaging, well-illustrated science textbook offering compelling answers to big questions, from how the universe formed to what causes earthquakes. It’s also a plea for readers of all ages to approach mysteries with rigor and curiosity, rather than buying into the supernatural myths at the core of most faith traditions.
Fortunately, Dawkins’s love of scientific exploration comes through more than his antipathy toward religion. He organizes each chapter around a question (e.g., “What is the sun?”) and begins the chapter with a litany of colorful explanatory myths offered by different cultures around the world. Then he shows us the elegant answers science has offered as the power of direct and indirect detection has expanded through the years. “I hope you agree that the truth has a magic of its own,” he writes. “The truth is more magical—in the best and most exciting sense of the word—than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle.”
I have only two disappointments about this book. First, I wish Dawkins had carved out the space to address some of the trickier areas of science like quantum mechanics, which really is fundamental to our understanding of the physical world and is at the core of many of our modern technologies.
Second, it’s too bad that some people may not read this book because of Dawkins’s strong views on religion. Even if Dawkins’s tone here is less contentious than usual, I fear this won’t get too far beyond the choir (to use a metaphor Dawkins might not appreciate). That’s too bad.
If The Magic of Reality appeals to you, you might also check out the online course Big History (which I helped fund). It’s similar to Dawkins’s book in that they both set out to give you a comprehensive view—a framework for understanding how knowledge fits together—and then you can dive into different areas that interest you. It’s a great way to start or continue your learning journey, no matter how old you are.