The Clockwork Universe


Edward Dolnick




Date Reviewed:

February 22, 2023

he Clockwork Universe - Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World is the fourth book by Dolnick that I have read. I find that he does an excellent job of explaining scientific concepts while also including interesting details about the personalities and principals that he is describing. For example, the word "calculus" is Latin for pebble - it is reference back to ancient times when heaps of small stones were used as calculating aids when solving addition or multiplication problems. The Clockwork Universe made me almost wish that I was a high school math teacher so that I could explain the fundamentals of calculus in the clear manner used by Dolnick in this book. (Don't be alarmed - this is not a math book! Only a few equations appear in the text!)

The Clockwork Universe is partitioned into three sections. Part I is titled Chaos. Dolnick describes the grim world of London in the 17th century. Bubonic plague ravaged the country, killing a huge percentage of the populace and shaking the foundations of society. The Great Fire of London burned a good portion of the city to ashes in 1666. People believed the in witches and curses and demonic possession. Everything that happened, from a comet appearing in the sky to a person stubbing their toe upon a rock, all happened because God willed it to be so. Medicine and doctors were worse than the disease - when King Charles II suffered a stroke in 1685, the physicians drained two cups of his blood, administered a sneezing powder, and gave him an enema and a purgative. Failing to cure the king, the doctors drained more blood, rubbed a concoction of pigeon dung and powdered pearls on his feet. They seared the king's shaved head and feet with red-hot irons. When Charles II fell into convulsions, the doctors prepared a potion whose primary ingredient was forty drops of human skull. After four days of this "care", the king succumbed and perished. Such the thinking of the most learned men of the seventeenth century!

Into this chaotic world was born the Royal Society (King Charles II was an aficionado of science, he chartered the Royal Society, and called the budding scientists "his jesters".) The Royal Society had radically different ideas - any topic could be discussed (and Dolnick list's some bizarre ideas that were explored) - but everything had to be backed up with experiments that would be performed and repeated in front of the gathered members. Ideas would be shared, new instruments such as the telescope and microscope would be examined. This was contrary to previous behavior, where scholars would jealously guard their secret knowledge.

The second section is called Hope and Monsters, in which Dolnick describes Newton's predecessors - primarily the work of Kepler and Galileo. These early figures knew that the planets orbited the sun, and had worked out the equations to predict the path of the planets, but no one could understand why the planet followed those particular courses. Descartes invented new graphs - Cartesian coordinates - that allowed him to plot motion over time - motion was a problem that the ancient Greeks could never solve, they only dealt with static figures in geometry. Dolnick does a great job at describing the genius of Galileo and his experiments - if the church had not condemned him to house arrest, it is possible that Italy and not England would have blossomed as the center of modern scientific thought.

The last part of the book is titled Into the Light. It deals mainly with Newton and his archrival, the equally brilliant German scientist Gottfried Leibniz. Although Newton had worked out the principals of calculus years before, he told only a few trusted souls of his accomplishment. Newton reveled in the fact that he was the only man alive that understood the mind of God. So when Leibniz published his own, independently derived, system of calculus, Newton reacted with shock and fury. Thus began a bitter feud between two of the smartest men who ever lived; each claiming to have invented calculus. Newton proceed to produce his own work, the magisterial Principia. Edward Halley (famous for describing the 76 year orbit of his eponymous comet) convinced the Royal Society to publish Newton's work. The Royal Society had previously produced only a single book, a lavish History of Fishes which lost money. Since Halley had pushed for publication of the Principia, the Royal Society instructed Halley to publish it as his own expense. Although not a wealthy man, Halley agreed. When the first edition of Principia was released, it met with wide acclaim, but the Royal Society finances deteriorated even further. They ended up paying Halley's salary with unsold volumes of A History of Fishes.

The Clockwork Universe is the best type of non-fiction writing. It is full of interesting ideas, surprising anecdotes, and presents it material in clear fashion. I look forward to whatever book Dolnick might write next.