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Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science…

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science

by Richard Dawkins

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This is the second of Dawkins memoirs to come out since his retirement as an active professor at Oxford University, this book is more about the science that was the focus of his career than his previous life history. He still does a little name dropping, but it's more in sync with professional moments in his career (a final interview with Christopher Hitchens or debates with antagonistic American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould). He discusses the science that was the foundation behind each of his books, and, of course, still manages to fire a few shots across the bow of Creationism. What I found most interesting is that one of the Microsoft billionaires, Charles Simonyi, endowed a professorship at Oxford for a specific purpose Dawkins was to fill. This started a series of lectures featuring some of the world's leading scientists and philosophers of science. Dawkins discusses this guest speakers of each of these lectures in detail.

Dawkins concludes the book with a poem of his own devising, giving some hope that he's not yet done writing about science. I do hope he still has some books left in him, as a leading Humanist, he is a large voice for the cause. ( )
  JeffV | Dec 31, 2016 |
Oxford Professor of Biology Richard Dawkins is probably more infamous as a leading spokesperson for atheism (“The God Delusion ” was a bestseller for many weeks in 2006) than he is famous for his distinguished contributions in biology, which includes the seminal “The Selfish Gene ”. As a science popularizer, he has also had best-sellers with “The Extended Phenotype ”, “The Blind Watchmaker ”, “Climbing Mount Improbable ”, and “River Out of Eden ”, each of which elucidates and/or extends the mechanisms of evolution. “Brief Candle in the Dark” is a kind of continuation of the autobiography that began with his 2013 book, “An Appetite for Wonder ”. The title is an homage to Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark ”, which is, in my opinion, the most powerful manifesto of science.
“An Appetite for Wonder” describes Dawkins’ formative years, the first eight of which were in colonial Kenya, and his introduction to the Oxford tutorial system, under which he blossomed as an intellectual, and where he published “The Selfish Gene”. “Brief Candle in the Dark” is a collection of reminiscences about the personal side of this international science celebrity. Dawkins enjoys the limelight and revels in a good argument. With “The Selfish Gene”, he moved the locus of natural selection from the organism to its molecules, and with “The Extended Phenotype”, he showed how the process of evolution can be manifested beyond the cell, beyond the organism, beyond the collective, and even into the physical world. “River Out of Eden7” is a beautiful little extended essay that looks back along the highway of evolution that links both our species and each of us as an individual to our genetic origins, through our mitochondrial DNA.
Each of these Dawkins books has generated its own wake of criticism, sometimes from his peers, sometimes from creationists, sometimes from religious believers. “Brief Candle in the Dark” is Dawkins’ personal, virtually conversational, account of each of those controversies and how he has dealt with them. His personal life is intertwined with an extraordinary cast of personalities, including both Nobel-winning scientists like Francis Crick, Niko Tinbergen, and Richard Leaky, and intellectuals such as Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Douglas Adams, Peter Medawar, Jared Diamond, and Christopher Hitchins. A remarkable collection of photographs is included. ( )
  hcubic | May 18, 2016 |
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The first instalment of Dawkins’s memoirs had the usual chronological structure for this sort of thing: childhood, education, dawning vocation, first jobs, finishing up with the book, The Selfish Gene, that made his reputation both as a significant evolutionary theorist and as a major contributor to the public understanding of science. Brief Candle takes up the story from around the time that An Appetite for Wonder left off, but it doesn’t aim to have a storyline. It’s a loose and multiply digressive collection of reminiscences, anecdotes, addenda, quotes from admirers, and extended quotes from himself. There are satisfied recollections of witty “sallies” and well-received lectures: “I think my speech went down quite well.” He notes instances of esprit de l’escalier about what he would have, should have, said to finish off obtuse clerics and scientific critics of the idea that selection works on the level of the gene; there are gracious acknowledgments of assistance from his wife, his editors and agents, research assistants and “winsomely charming” TV producers. And there are some less‑than-gracious paybacks to incompetent TV producers, choleric outbursts against creationist stitch-ups that made him seem to come off badly in debates, and outraged accounts of bad behaviour by American fundamentalist preachers.

There are also tips on clever ways of impressing Oxford-entrance examiners, suggestions for more rational procedures for reading and evaluating student admission applications, as well as a not wholly tongue-in-cheek recommendation that A-levels be replaced by University Challenge-style general knowledge quizzes to see “if you have the sort of mind that would benefit from a university education”. Names of people he has met are dropped liberally into the narrative: Neil Armstrong, Bill Gates, John Cleese, Claire Bloom, Freddie Ayer, James Watson, Francis Crick, David Attenborough and even the Queen – who deigned to notice, though not to admire, one of the animal-themed ties that his wife specially designed for him.

At his best, Dawkins has written with passion, urgency and clarity, and, if crushing the creationists and convincing the enemies of reason of their stupidity has secured him a reputation as something of a one-trick pony, it has been a polished trick and a best-in-show pony. But this is not Dawkins at his best. Brief Candle consists of scattered reflections on a life and on a set of public performances. It adds only a little to the science lessons and, compared with the first volume of the memoirs (which was itself a guarded performance), it’s stingy with insights into his personal life.
added by Cynfelyn | editGuardian, Steven Shapin (Aug 26, 2015)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062288431, Hardcover)

In this hugely entertaining sequel to the New York Times bestselling memoir An Appetite for Wonder, Richard Dawkins delves deeply into his intellectual life spent kick-starting new conversations about science, culture, and religion and writing yet another of the most audacious and widely read books of the twentieth century—The God Delusion.

Called “one of the best nonfiction writers alive today” (Stephen Pinker) and a “prize-fighter” (Nature), Richard Dawkins cheerfully, mischievously, looks back on a lifetime of tireless intellectual adventure and engagement. Exploring the halls of intellectual inquiry and stardom he encountered after the publication of his seminal work, The Selfish Gene; affectionately lampooning the world of academia, publishing, and television; and studding the pages with funny stories about the great men and women he’s known, Dawkins offers a candid look at the events and ideas that encouraged him to shift his attention to the intersection of culture, religion, and science. He also invites the reader to look more closely at the brilliant succession of ten influential books that grew naturally out of his busy life, highlighting the ideas that connect them and excavating their origins.

On the publication of his tenth book, the smash hit, The God Delusion, a “resounding trumpet blast for truth” (Matt Ridley), Richard Dawkins was catapulted from mere intellectual stardom into a circle of celebrity thinkers dubbed, “The New Atheists”—including Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.

Throughout A Brief Candle in the Dark, Dawkins shares with us his infectious sense of wonder at the natural world, his enjoyment of the absurdities of human interaction, and his bracing awareness of life’s brevity: all of which have made a deep imprint on our culture.

(retrieved from Amazon Sat, 11 Jul 2015 15:37:35 -0400)

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