Re: Ch. 4: What are things made of?
In Ch. 4, Dawkins presents an overview of atoms. Early cultures concluded that matter is composed of four basic elements: air, water, fire, and earth. But one Greek—Democritus—came closer to the truth with the idea that if you cut something up into smaller and smaller pieces, you would eventually reach a piece that was so small that it couldn't be cut further. The Greek word for 'cut' is tomos
, so 'atomic' means it can't be cut further.
As many of us know from high school chemistry, there are about 100 different kinds of atoms—the real elements—identified by their atomic number. This was a good overview of atoms, molecules, crystals, and the difference between solids, gases, and liquids—why we can walk through gases, swim through liquids but cannot move through solids.
We can't actually see atoms because they are so small. We surmise their existence by creating models and testing them to see if our predictions turn out correct. To me, this is where the discussion of atoms gets so strange. The world of the very small is so bizarre and not easily imagined. Dawkins says that's why there are no myths or legends that try to explain the world at an atomic level because early cultures would have no way of knowing that it even existed. I thought this would be an uncontroversial chapter, but in the final two paragraphs, Dawkins segues into a why our "holy books" don't include information about atoms and the universe. Here are the last couple of sentences:
So when we first started reading THE MAGIC OF REALITY, I wondered if Dawkins would show the anti-religion slant for which he is so famous—more so than that of his role as a science educator. To some extent there probably needs to be some delving into the realm of religious belief. And I do think the question he ends with here is valid, especially since he does begin most chapters with a myth that segues into how things really are.
At the same time, I hate that the conversation gets dragged down to a Creationist mindset. It should be assumed that the readers of this book do not accept a literal interpretation of the Bible. Perhaps Dawkins should focus entirely on the magic of reality and leave out such editorializing. It's possible that Dawkins enjoys the controversy. He certainly knew that these last couple of paragraphs would send Creationists and their apologists into a tizzy.