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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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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, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick (2011)

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    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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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 |
A well-written book about the most rational of irrational times, since it would be a mistake to think that what we call the modern science was born in a very rational way. The best thinkers of the time, Newton included, were on a quest to read the God’s mind, as much in astronomy, chemistry and physics as in astrology, alchemy and theology. All sorts of ideas were up for grabs and it seems a miracle that modern science was born out of that chaos. Moreover, the heavens seemed to baffle all learned men of the times. It seemed obvious that anything created by God had to be perfect, so the main preoccupation of the times was that it didn’t seem so, and if it wasn’t, how did it all work and made sense.

Newton provided an answer to this quest with a plethora of epic discoveries and a set of laws and forces that came to be known as the ‘clockwork universe’. It proposed that the same set of basic rules and forces made both the heavens and the earth go round. The idea was very novel and unusually daring for the times as it proposed that the heavens were really no different from the Earth, yet it fit well with the belief of the perfection of God’s design.
‘Throughout his life Newton believed that God operated in the simplest, neatest, most efficient way imaginable. That principle served as his starting point whether he was studying the Bible or the natural world- ‘It is ye perfection of God’s works that they are all done with ye greatest simplicity.” The universe had no superfluous parts or forces for exactly the reason that a clock had no superfluous wheels or springs.”

Newton made a few monumental discoveries on the way to this thesis, like calculus and gravity, and a big part of the book is devoted to them. Quite a bit of space is dedicated to Leibnitz-Newton calculus feud and there are well-drawn portrayals of bigger and lesser scientists of the Royal Society.

Apparently, each age has its challenges. In the 17th century people found out that the universe was far from perfect, yet governed by a few predicable laws; in the 20th and into the 21st reality suddenly seems to have become much more complicated, much less solid and less predictable. Arguably, just like the workings of the Universe were the main mystery and preoccupation of the times of Newton, it’s the nature of our life and consciousness that seems to cause as much controversy nowadays. As religion and belief in God were a given in the Newton’s times, it is far from universal in our times.

I really enjoyed the book, and both read and listened to it. If you choose to listen to it, it’s a great audio production. Nevertheless, having the book is helpful, even if to look at the graphs together with the text, especially if you’re not a math or physics buff. The infinity and calculus ideas are much more understandable together with the graphs and pictures in the book, even though the audio offers a separate pdf file with those as well. ( )
  Niecierpek | Nov 24, 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. . . .
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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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