Topic 2 – The Magic of Reality

Oct 24, 2021

The discussion topic for next week will be an excerpt from Richard Dawkin’s 2011 popular science book, ‘The Magic of Reality’. Read the excerpt below, and use it and the internet to answer the questions below and we will have a short class discussion next week.

The goal of this exercise is to promote interest in science, to celebrate science and the people who make it possible, and also build up your skills in searching for information on the internet.


“There is a 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 guess what might be there. That is called the model. We then work out (often by doing a mathematical calculation) what we should 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 should 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 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 should be if those models were correct. The predictions of one model, the so-called double helix model, exactly fitted the measurements made by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, using special instruments involving X-rays beamed into crystals of purified DNA. Watson and Crick also immediately realized that their model of the structure of DNA would produce exactly the kind of results seen by Gregor Mendel in his garden.

Watson and Crick’s DNA model

We come to know what is real, then, in one of three ways. We can detect it directly, using our five senses; or indirectly, using our senses aided by special instruments such as telescopes and microscopes; or even more indirectly, by creating models of what might be real and then testing those models to see whether they successfully predict things that we can see (or hear, etc.), with or without the aid of instruments. Ultimately, it always comes back to our senses, one way or another.

So that is how we can know whether something is real or not. I want now to turn to magic. Magic is a slippery word: it is commonly used in three different ways, and the first thing I must do is distinguish between them. I’ll call the first one ‘supernatural magic’, the second one ‘stage magic’ and the third one ‘poetic magic’.

Supernatural magic is the kind of magic we find in myths and fairy tales. It’s the magic of Aladdin’s lamp, of wizards’ spells, of the Brothers Grimm, of Hans Christian Andersen and of J. K. Rowling. It’s the fictional magic of a witch casting a spell and turning a prince into a frog, or a fairy godmother changing a pumpkin into a coach. These are the stories we all remember with love from our childhood, and many of us still enjoy – but we all know this kind of magic is just fiction and does not happen in reality.

Stage magic, by contrast, really does happen, and it can be great fun. Or at least, something really happens, though it isn’t what the audience thinks it is. A man on a stage (it usually is a man, for some reason) tricks us into thinking that something astonishing has happened (it may even seem supernatural) when what really happened was something quite different. Silk handkerchiefs cannot turn into rabbits, any more than frogs can turn into princes. What we have seen on the stage is only a trick. Our eyes have deceived us – or rather, the magician has gone to great pains to trick our eyes, perhaps by cleverly using words to distract us from what he is really doing with his hands.

Some magicians are honest and go out of their way to make sure their audiences know that they have simply performed a trick. I am thinking of people like James ‘The Amazing’ Randi, or Penn and Teller, or Derren Brown. Even though these admirable performers don’t usually tell the audience exactly how they did the trick, they do make sure the audience knows that there was no supernatural magic involved. But unfortunately there are some magicians who are deliberately dishonest, and who pretend they really do have ‘super-natural’ or ‘paranormal’ powers: perhaps they claim that they really can bend metal or stop clocks by the power of thought alone. Some of these dishonest fakes (‘charlatans’ is a good word for them) earn large fees from mining or oil companies by claiming that they can tell, using ‘psychic powers’, where would be a good place to drill. Other charlatans exploit people who are grieving, by claiming to be able to make contact with the dead. When this happens it is no longer just fun or entertainment, but preying on people’s gullibility and distress. To be fair, it may be that not all of these people are charlatans. Some of them may sincerely believe they are talking to the dead.

The third meaning of magic is poetic magic. We are moved to tears by a beautiful piece of music and we describe the performance as ‘magical’. We gaze up at the stars on a dark night with no moon and no city lights and, breathless with joy, we say the sight is ‘pure magic’. We might use the same word to describe a gorgeous sunset, or an alpine landscape, or a rainbow against a dark sky. In this sense, ‘magical’ simply means deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more fully alive. What I hope to show you in this book is that reality – the facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science – is magical in this third sense, the poetic sense, the good to be alive sense.

Now I want to return to the idea of the supernatural and explain why it can never offer us a true explanation of the things we see in the world and universe around us. Indeed, to claim a supernatural explanation of something is not to explain it at all and, even worse, to rule out any possibility of its ever being explained. Why do I say that? Because anything ‘supernatural’ must by definition be beyond the reach of a natural explanation. It must be beyond the reach of science and the well-established, tried and tested scientific method that has been responsible for the huge advances in knowledge we have enjoyed over the last 400 years or so. To say that something happened supernaturally is not just to say ‘We don’t understand it’ but to say ‘We will never understand it, so don’t even try.’

Science takes exactly the opposite approach. Science thrives on its inability – so far – to explain everything, and uses that to go on asking questions, creating possible models and testing them, so that we make our way, inch by inch, closer to the truth. If something were to happen that went against our current understanding of reality, scientists would see that as a challenge to our present model, requiring us to abandon or at least change it. It is through such adjustments and subsequent testing that we approach closer and closer to what is true.

What would you think of a detective who, baffled by a murder, was too lazy even to try to work at the problem and instead wrote the mystery off as ‘supernatural’? The whole history of science shows us that things once thought to be the result of the supernatural – caused by gods (both happy and angry), demons, witches, spirits, curses and spells – actually do have natural explanations: explanations that we can understand and test and have confidence in. There is absolutely no reason to believe that those things for which science does not yet have natural explanations will turn out to be of supernatural origin, any more than volcanoes or earthquakes or diseases turn out to be caused by angry deities, as people once believed they were.

I want to show you that the real world, as understood scientifically, has magic of its own – the kind I call poetic magic: an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works. Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison. The magic of reality is neither supernatural nor a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real. ” – The Magic of Reality by Dawkins (2011)


  • Who is Richard Dawkins?
  • What is a model?
  • Who discovered the structure of DNA?
  • According to Dawkins, what are the 3 types of magic?
  • Who is Derren Brown?