The Magic of Reality (2011) offers an introduction to scientific thinking by going through the ways scientists have explained natural phenomena once thought to be supernatural. Whether shedding light on the building blocks of the universe or explaining the origins of life, scientific reasoning has an answer.
There are countless stories about the origin of life and the universe. According to a Bantu tribe in Congo, for example, the universe was created by Bumba.
First, there was only watery darkness and Bumba. One day Bumba got sick and vomited up the sun, whose light dispelled the darkness and dried the land. Bumba vomited again, creating the moon, stars, animals and people.
Science certainly tells a different story of our origins. But how can we be sure which is true? How can we know what is real?
We know something is real if we can experience it directly with our senses. When you taste ice cream, for instance, you know it’s real. When you touch a piece of wood, you know it’s real.
If our senses aren’t fine-tuned enough to experience a particular something, we can enhance them with scientific instruments, such as telescopes and microscopes, which help us see distant galaxies and miniscule bacteria.
When these instruments don’t suffice, we can turn to special machines that detect what our senses cannot. For example, while we could never see X-rays with the naked eye, we nonetheless can confirm their existence with the help of special machines.
By using these machines, we develop an understanding of how X-rays work, and can, in turn, use them to enhance our image of reality. For instance, X-rays allow us to look inside the human body and examine our bone structures.
But what if we want to learn about the past? We can’t sense the past, nor can we examine it directly with complex instruments. But we can use indirect evidence.
Take fossils, for example. Fossils form when mineral-rich water seeps into a corpse buried in mud and rock. There, the minerals crystallize, replacing the atoms of the corpse one by one and leaving behind an imprint of the animal in the stone.
We’ll never be able to see dinosaurs or saber-toothed tigers, but we can see their fossils!