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The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the…
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The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of… (2011)

by Edward Dolnick

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    Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris (rakerman)
    rakerman: Many of the same scientists show up in Coming of Age and The Clockwork Universe, with different emphasis and focus. The books complement one another, for example there are more details about Kepler's work in The Clockwork Universe.
  2. 00
    The Universe Within by Neil Turok (rakerman)
    rakerman: The Clockwork Universe is to some extent a history of science ending with Newton as the key figure; The Universe Within also provides a history of science but starts with Newton and then moves on to quantum physicists.
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Excellent popular history of how during the 1600s math became the new tool for explaining the natural world. In fact geometry had been around since the Greeks, but that is only for objects at rest, not in motion, thus had limited application. Isaac Newton invented Calculus which explained objects in motion (geometry on the move) and opened up many fields of scientific inquiry (indeed science itself). The central tenant of the book is that 17th century thinkers came to believe God made the world based on math. This is an unintuitive historical shift in our view of the cosmos, and goes a long way to explain why the West had such a head start over other parts of the world. Why did this happen? Math was an arcane and rarely studied field at the time, not even required in school. Well Dolnik doesn't really explain other than "special pleading": it was mathematicians who decided the world was based on math, and thus God's language, since they themselves were math experts. Not a satisfactory answer and a major fault in the book to not explore this in more detail. Where the book shines is to make math seem new and exciting. I'd never had an interest in Calculus but am now curious to learn more, since I now understand who invented it and for what. Overall an interesting book with lots to offer for a general introduction to some of the great minds and ideas of the 17th century. ( )
  Stbalbach | May 12, 2014 |
Science > Europe > History
Religion and science > History
  xkyzero | Jan 24, 2014 |
38. The Clockwork Universe : Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick (2011, 364 pages, read Aug 11-18)

Dolnick does several things wonderfully - he tries to put the reader into the mentality of the era (Newton lived 1642 to 1727), then he explores what it took the discover/invent Calculus, then covers the Newton-Leibniz wars over who invented calculus, which Newton won in the most bastardly of ways, then what it took to be Newton and come up Principia, and just how out there Newton was. There are several interesting conclusions. One conclusion is summed in a quote by "a NASA climatologist", "Newton may have been an ass, but the theory of gravity still works." Another highlights how the hyper-religious & religiously-driven Newton essentially took God out of the physical universe by making God unnecessary. (And how Leibniz did too, in his own way. He was also very religious) A side note at the end is that this stuff in the scientific revolution leads to the American Revolution.

That's enough of a review. But I'm in a mass information mentality, the more the better, and I want to share. Feel free to stop here... but I have more to say ...

The Calculus War: For a while Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz becomes the hero of this book, and Newton quite the villain. Dolnick concludes that both Leibniz and Newton invented calculus independently, because you see them working it out in their existing notes (which are extensive in both cases). But in the battle, and it was a bitter one, there were some interesting variables and Newton had a tactical advantage. Leibniz was brilliant polymath, with a wide range of expertise. But, his mind was his livelihood. Dependent on acquiring sponsors, he was constantly trying to impress (and succeeding). His main sponsor, a German nobleman, became the King George I of England, which would have been great if Newton hadn't also been English and George hadn't felt some need to act more English. Newton was a landowner. He wasn't wealthy but he didn't have work. So, he could afford to spend years working out ideas, and maybe still not publish them (He never published any of this 1000 pages of notes on alchemy). Newton was also president of the Royal Society. Failing to get help from King George in his battle with Newton over credit for calculus, Leibniz handed the judgment, following King George's advice, to the Royal Society! Oops. Newton personally wrote the judgment, presented as that of a special committee. The committee gave credit to being first (Newton was 20 years ahead of Leibniz in inventing calculus, but didn't publish) and also falsely accused Leibniz of getting a hold of Newton's notes and therefore possibly stealing the idea of calculus from Newton. This judgment was passed all around Europe as that of the highly regarded Royal Society and was widely accepted. Leibniz was crushed. Newton would die a hero and, have a hero's funeral march and massive tomb. Leibniz would die simply, with no fanfare in a simple grave. The irony of all this is that Newton's notation was unclear and difficult to use, whereas that Leibniz's notation was quite nice. Today we use Leibniz's notation when writing out calculus.

The Clockwork Universe: Dolnick's final conclusion is one of the most interesting parts of the book. At this point we know how religious Newton was. He really believed that God has made the world and that the more we understood how the world works, the closer we got to god. So, working out the ideas in his Principia was, for him, a very religious and religiously driven act. But, if you can explain how God's world works...well, you no longer need god. And that, ironically, is Newton's legacy. His Principia was critical to freeing future scientists from religious bonds. The world worked as it did, whatever the initial cause. Studying this world became a purely physical endeavor.

Side Note 1: I think it is fascinating and hysterical that the inventor of calculus did not use it for explaining gravity or anything else in Principia. It's all explained with painstakingly worked out geometry and algebra and the like. It is such an embarrassing thing that Newton later claimed he did the initial work using calculus, but was afraid no one would believe it unless he also worked it out in the way he presented it. That was a lie, he really didn't use his own tool.

Side Note 2: I should also point out that Dolnick does not appear to use many primary sources, which I think is fine considering what he doing here. But, wow, his secondary sources make up an absolutely wonderful list of books published over the last 50 years.

To see this review within the context of my LT thread, go here: http://www.librarything.com/topic/154187#4317459 ( )
2 vote dchaikin | Oct 10, 2013 |
Not my usual genre (although I read a bit of everything)and was surprised at how much I loved this book. I gave it 5 stars as this is a book I will want to reread again and enjoy doing so. It is the story of how physics was discovered and the perspective and descriptions of the scientists and the time period make it thoroughly captivating. I really enjoyed the author's writing style, too. For example: "On the one hand, what could more plainly be human inventions than the concepts of geometry and algebra? Even the simplest mathematical notion has no tangible existence in the everyday world. Who goes for a walk and trips over a 3?" And, "This was the 17th century's counterpart of phone-menu hell (if your call is about billing, press 1), and early scientists groaned in despair because the questions conintued endlessly, and escape seemed impossible." What a perfect analogy! I will never look at Excel spreadsheets again without thinking of Descartes and the idea of graphing results. Very cool book! ( )
  tkhughes8 | Jan 21, 2013 |
The Clockwork Universe is a decently written history of science looking at the period that many consider a major turning point, when the understanding of astronomy and mathematics changed dramatically, shifting to the (more or less) common view we have today.

If you don't know much at all about probability theory or calculus or physics, the book provides enough basic information to understand what it was the Newton and his contemporaries came up with, and how revolutionary it was. If you do have some knowledge of the mechanics of those fields, but not the history and how significantly different they are from what preceded them, this is also a good book.

However, and rather alarmingly for a history of science, it also contains some significant misstatements and repeats old apocryphal stories. For example, while noting that Newton's inspiration for understanding gravity probably did involve an apple, Dolnick makes the point that the story of the apple hitting him on the head is likely embellishment. Then not very much later he describes Ben Franklin flying a kite in a lightning storm. Something Franklin proposed as a possibility, but most likely didn't happen. Instead the documented experiments involve lightning rods and the experimenters aren't holding on to them.

In order to present the reigning world view, which generally saw God everywhere, he cites Blaise Pascal, is well known for questioning the existence of God but concluding that without proof one way or the other, the safer bet is to behave as if God does exist. Hardly the position of an unswervingly religious man.

And some of the descriptions and analogies to explain various scientific phenomena are awkward and painful at best. There are probably more missteps that I simply didn't notice or don't have sufficient depth of my own to pick up on. On the whole it was a decent read, but I would suggest is a starting point for someone with little background in science, rather than a book for someone already well interested in science and wishing to understand more of its history. ( )
  grizzly.anderson | Dec 25, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
London before the mid-1600s was a general calamity. The streets were full of thieves, murderers and human waste. Death was everywhere: doctors were hapless, adults lived to about age 30, children died like flies. In 1665, plague moved into the city, killing sometimes 6,000 people a week. In 1666, an unstoppable fire burned the city to the ground; the bells of St. Paul’s melted. Londoners thought that the terrible voice of God was “roaring in the City,” one witness wrote, and they would do best to accept the horror, calculate their sins, pray for guidance and await retribution.

In the midst of it all, a group of men whose names we still learn in school formed the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. They thought that God, while an unforgiving judge, was also a mathematician. As such, he had organized the universe according to discernible, mathematical law, which, if they tried, they could figure out. They called themselves “natural philosophers,” and their motto was “Nullius in verba”: roughly, take no one’s word for anything. You have an idea? Demonstrate it, do an experiment, prove it. The ideas behind the Royal Society would flower into the Enlightenment, the political, cultural, scientific and educational revolution that gave rise to the modern West.

This little history begins Edward Dolnick’s “Clockwork Universe,” so the reader might think the book is about the Royal Society and its effects. But the Royal Society is dispatched in the first third of the book, and thereafter, the subject is how the attempt to find the mathematics governing the universe played out in the life of Isaac Newton. . . .
added by PLReader | editNY Times, ANN FINKBEINER (Mar 25, 2011)
 
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A"New York Times"-bestselling author presents the true story of a pivotal moment in modern history when a group of strange, tormented geniuses--Isaac Newton chief among them--invented science and remade our understanding of the world.

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