The Magic of Reality

In an age of wizards and vampires, children need to rediscover the wonder of the real world

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Magic has three meanings. There’s the supernatural magic of fairy-tale spells, magic of the kind that can turn a frog into a prince or a pumpkin into a glittering conveyance to his ball. There’s stage magic — conjuring — which is nothing but clever tricks and illusions. And then there’s the magic of a thunderstorm over Grand Canyon, of the Milky Way on a cloudless night far from light pollution or of a scanning electron micrograph of an ant’s face. Or, for that matter, the magic of a lover’s kiss.

The supernatural is ubiquitous in children’s entertainment, from Grimm and Hans Andersen to Disney and Harry Potter. But there is also spellbinding wonder to be found in the real world, properly understood through science. I decided to write a book for young people because I wanted to share that kind of magic with them.

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Supernatural magic not only doesn’t happen, it cannot happen. Frogs can’t turn into princes because princes are complicated: they are statistically improbable collections of atoms that are capable of walking, talking, thinking, playing the piano. You can randomly shuffle and recombine the shredded bits of a box of frogs a million times, and not once will you get a prince — although all the necessary atoms are there. That is why Darwin’s idea of natural selection is so brilliant. It is the only way ever suggested for how purely natural causes can create an illusion of complex design. The key is non-random natural selection and the fact that random luck (genetic mutation) doesn’t come in one big, ludicrously improbable lump like a magic spell but is spread out in small, incremental steps — a ramp of improvement so gentle that no one step represents too improbable a change from the generation before.

The very idea of supernatural magic — including miracles — is incoherent, devoid of sensible meaning. If we observe what appears to be a miraculous violation of the laws of physics, there are only three possibilities.

  1. The observation is mistaken, misreported or faked.
  2. A very improbable event has happened by an extraordinary stroke of luck. Even a perfect deal at bridge (each of the four players receives cards of only one suit) will happen once in every 536,447,737,765,488,792,839,237,440,000 games. That is no more improbable than any other particular deal, but we don’t notice the others because there is nothing conspicuously special about them.
  3. The laws of physics as currently understood need revising. It’s happened before — and it will probably happen again, for science is nothing if not humble and aware of how much more there is to learn. Indeed, scientists recently reported that the tiny particles called neutrinos can travel faster than light (through solid rock, by the way!) If this observation is reliably confirmed — and it is a big if (see Possibility #1 above) — then either Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity will have been disproved or we must face the philosophically disquieting possibility of traveling backwards in time, and hence of effects preceding their causes.

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The fourth alleged possibility — a supernatural miracle has occurred — is meaningless, incoherent, an abdication of scientific duty and a betrayal of the spirit of restless curiosity that makes us human. Even if you believe a creator god invented the laws of physics, would you so insult him as to suggest that he might capriciously and arbitrarily violate them in order to walk on water, or turn water into wine as a cheap party trick at a wedding?

Fairy-tale spells, miracles and myths — they make good stories, and I have fun with them throughout my book. But the truth — science — is more magical, in the best and most thrilling sense of the word, than any myth or made-up miracle. Science has its own magic: the magic of reality.