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The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the…

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of… (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Edward Dolnick

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4661622,239 (3.92)35
Title:The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
Authors:Edward Dolnick
Info:Harper Perennial (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Science, History of Science, Rationalism, Isaac Newton, Royal Society

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The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, & the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick (2011)

  1. 20
    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. 10
    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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This is an excellent and easily readable tale of the beginnings of scientific thinking in the 17th Century. It brings the contrast between the old worldview, in which everything is in some way a deliberate act of God, with one in which there are comprehensible and, more importantly, understandable rules and regularities underlying the natural world. I recommend it. ( )
  DLMorrese | Oct 14, 2016 |
The scientific revolution. Easy listening for nerds. Recommended. ( )
  ohernaes | Dec 29, 2014 |
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 |
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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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The universe is but a watch on a larger scale.
-- Bernard de Fontenelle, 1686
For Lynn
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A stranger to the city who happened to see the parade of eager, chattering men disappearing into Thomas Gresham's mansion might have found himself at a loss.
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Nel 1665 Londra viene colpita da una pestilenza che si porta via un quinto dei suoi abitanti. L'anno successivo un incendio devastante fa quasi altrettante vittime. Proprio in quei due anni Isaac Newton, un giovane scontroso, magro e allampanato, inventa il calcolo infinitesimale e calcola la forza di gravità della Luna, prima pedina della legge di gravitazione universale. Negli stessi, pochi anni, altri uomini, riuniti attorno alla neonata Royal Society, fanno scoperte che rivoluzioneranno per sempre le nostre vite. "L'universo meccanico" è la storia vera di quel pugno di uomini geniali, bizzarri e tormentati, che ha inventato il mondo moderno. Per metà narrazione e per metà divulgazione scientifica, è un ritratto di gruppo di alcune delle più grandi menti che siano mai vissute, alle prese con alcuni dei misteri più profondi della natura. Il mondo nel quale erano immersi Newton, Leibniz, Galileo e gli altri era fatto di incendi, guerre, malattie e sporcizia; ogni avversità era interpretata come un atto di punizione divina e la superstizione regnava sovrana. Eppure queste menti sognatrici e brillanti in pochi decenni hanno descritto un universo ordinato come un orologio, regolato da leggi matematiche precise, nel quale pianeti e atomi si muovevano seguendo percorsi prevedibili e meccanici. Sorprendentemente, avevano ragione.
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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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