Back to the birth of scienceby Philip Ball / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Speaking to David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins fretted about the title of his new children’s book. “It is called The Magic Of Reality,” (see Duel on p26) he said “and one of the problems I’m facing is the distinction between the use of the word magic, as in a magic trick, and the magic of the universe, life on Earth, which one uses in a poetic way.” “No,” Attenborough reassured him, “I think there’s a distinction between magic and wonder. Magic should be restricted to things that are actually not so. Rabbits don’t really live in hats. It’s magic.”
Attenborough’s remark reflects how, in scientific circles, magic implies trickery and credulity. But this is only part of the story. During the Renaissance, certain kinds of magic were the closest thing to experimental science—which is why Lynn Thorndike, the American historian, yoked them together in his epic survey, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (1923-1958).