A Life in Science
by Richard Dawkins
Brief Candle in the Dark is the second volume of Dawkins’s autobiography; the first part, An Appetite for Wonder I reviewed here.
Rather than being a chronological account of his life, this volume is set out by subject and is all the more interesting and enjoyable because of it. It means that one can skip, ignore and/or go back to chapters at will without disturbing the flow of Professor Dawkins’s narrative.
‘I experienced the same ….near-lachrymose pride in what humans can do when they co-operate, across nations and across language barriers.’ [of a visit to CERN]
He begins with details of his life as a reader at New College, Oxford and goes on to describe his experiences as speaker at various scientific conferences, and as an invited lecturer, in – for example – the USA and Japan as well as in Oxford and London. Dawkins has long been a controversial figure, not only among his fellow scientists but also among practitioners of other disciplines, most famously (or notoriously, depending on one’s stance in these matters) when he strays into the subject of religion. He has been fortunate enough to be at the cutting edge of developments and discoveries in his field of expertise and his books on zoology and genetics have sold millions in several foreign languages as well as English.
‘The overwhelming impression I took away from the Galapagos was the tameness of the animals and the almost “Martian” weirdness of the vegetation…. You have to take care not to tread on the sunbathing marine iguanas and the nesting boobies and albatrosses.’
Two of his more ‘exotic’ experiences (of which I’m quite envious) were visits to the Galapagos Islands and diving in a submersible off the islands of Japan to look for the Giant Squid. He is passionate about his work and that of his students as well as his contemporaries. He does not draw back in his appreciation of and respect for both, or stint his admiration and gratitude to his mentors and those who have gone before. He is in awe of Darwin and does not let us forget it.
Professor Dawkins’s interests extend beyond science (and religion) into other fields such as philosophy, literature and IT. The title of Brief Candle in the Dark is a composite one from two literary sources: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a book by Carl Sagan. He is quite accomplished as a computer programmer. Whilst he does move in fairly lofty company, I suspect Dawkins enjoys name-dropping, but he does it in an unoffensive way.
‘I arrived at his tall Islington house and rang the bell. Douglas opened the door, already laughing. I immediately had the sense that he was laughing not at me but at himself or perhaps more precisely at my anticipated reaction … to his spectacular height.’ [on meeting Douglas Adams]
His circle of friends and acquaintances include some very well-known past and present public figures – Richard and (Sir) David Attenborough, Martin Rees (Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal), Jocelyn Burnell (discoverer of pulsars), Douglas Adams, to name but a few*. Perhaps more surprising – given his atheism – is his liking and admiration for Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi).
In the second half of the book, Dawkins talks about his experiences in television and in live debate. He seems genuinely surprised and humbled by the honours he has received.The last hundred pages of Brief Candle in the Dark are reserved for discussion of ‘Dawkins Science’ (if I may call it that). He talks at length about genes, phenotypes, wasps, cuckoos and immortality, always in the same fluid style, his seriousness interspersed with moments of humour.
‘I am strongly in favour of teaching children ABOUT religion, even as I passionately oppose indoctrinating children in the particular religious tradition into which they happen to have been born.’
He also talks about religion, in particular his book The God Delusion, which is one that I would indeed recommend, along with The Greatest Show on Earth, to readers of all shades of opinion and belief. Both his work and his beliefs about life and death are part of the man. You can’t have one without the other.
In my review of An Appetite for Wonder I wrote:
‘Professor Dawkins is not a modest man. He is proud of his achievements, and this comes over in his writing. However, he is not a boastful man either and is equally ready to admit his mistakes and regrets. Although he argues with passion, his reputation as a ‘militant’ is ill-deserved….’
After reading Brief Candle in the Dark I have no reason to change my opinion. Dawkins is a scientist whom I admire greatly, as I do Attenborough (see above), Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock. This is a book that can be enjoyed by scientist and non-scientist alike.