The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
by Edward Dolnick
2011 / 416 pages
read by Alan Sklar – 10h 7m
rating 7 / history of science/math
I should have finished this before the New Year, but here it sat, half finished and waiting for me. I don’t know how I missed it in trying to clean up unfinished books.
This is basically a rather lively portrait of Isaac Newton and that era of history in which he and other scientists worked. That era which used Decartes’ idea that the world operated like a clock – a self-regulating universe where God had set up everything in perfect order and they could measure it and come to know it. Some scientists were more enamored with that idea than others but in general that’s the way it was with cutting edge math-science- philosophy or “natural science” as it was called then. Still there was was much that was clouded in the mystery of the unknown, so there was still plenty of belief in angels, superstitions and miracles.
In this atmosphere scientists, philosophers and mathematicians were determined to find the laws God had set to operating in the universe. The Royal Society was in charge of the sciences and gave quite a lot of energy to the era known as the Enlightenment and Isaac Newton was in charge of the Society for more than 20 years.
Dolnick discusses the Royal Society as well as Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, Descartes, Galileo and several other important figures.
The math and science used at the end of the Reformation end of the Renaissance was still based in a static universe. A new math had to be invented which could measure movement – the world needed calculus. So Newton (and Gottfried Leibniz – famous believer that “This is the best of all possible worlds.”) invented it. Then Newton went on to use that calculus on the measurement of motion an the famous stories of Newton and gravity. And then came Kepler, the actual mathematics of gravity and the Principia. But in the end Newton was still stymied by where gravity came from. And he continued to rely on and look to an omniscient and omnipresent God at the center of the universe – the creator of the mechanism.
Obviously a mini-biography of Isaac Newton is at the center of the novel – and as usual (always?) there were many tidbits adding to my little knowledge base. Newton was not Mr Nice-guy but I’ve always been intrigued by him.
It’s an interesting book and it expanded on material i knew from prior reading. Dolnick certainly knows how to explain the math and writes well and clearly, sometimes with low-key humor. Parts are quite fun because he includes a fair amount of literary references along the way.
There is an excellent pdf file accompanying but separate from the audio download – it contains a chronology which really makes sense of the times. Also in the file are the graphics from the book.