Richard Dawkins writes with a sense of delighted discovery

The history of flight from its natural origins on the wings of the pterosaur to today’s technological wonders of the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737. Richard Dawkins writes with a sense of delighted discovery, using the tiniest details to illuminate his narrative. Literally.

…the smallest flying insect is the Fairyfly (it’s actually a wasp but never mind) and the Latin name of one species of fairyfly is Tinkerbella nana (‘nana’ comes from the sheepdog nanny of the Darling children in Peter Pan).

He pokes sly fun at authors like Conan Doyle and Michael Crichton and the ancient Greeks for the design flaws in their work

…what matters is that wings have a large surface area compared to the size of the animal as a whole. Such a large surface area is needed to provide lift in air. The winged sandals of Hermes (Roman Mercury) the messenger of the Greek gods were much too small, as absurd as the dinky little propellers in this doomed, though charming, Victorian design for a flying machine.

which passage is faced by an illustration of a guy in a top hat sitting inside an open, rectangular metal box with propellers mounted all over the bars. Made me think of drones and how many it would take to get that contraption into the air.

The chapter on weightlessness includes a not strictly tongue-in-cheek comparison between the jump of a flea and Alan Shepard’s ascent to orbit. In the chapter “‘Wings’ for Plants” he writes

How do the bees and butterflies, hummingbirds and others find the nectar? Natural selection favours plants that advertise: ‘Come and get your nectar here.’

and includes a great story about Darwin who predicted a species of moth based on the shape of an orchid sent him by botanist Joseph Hooker. In ‘What is the Use of Half a Wing?’ he delivers a smackdown to the creationists with equal parts humor and evidence, but which really you should read just for the megapode compost heaps.

And where do we go from here? Onward, Dawkins says, upward, outward, if only to ensure the survival of the human race beyond the boundaries of this planet, which fragile ark is always and ever at risk from within and from without.

Charming, affable prose and enchanting illustrations by Jana Lenzova greet one on every page, and this book is so beautifully produced it’s an objet d’art in its own right. A gift for anyone on your list, including yourself.

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