Biding My Time with the Clockwork Universe

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though I am an English teacher and deal more in parables than in parabolas, I found this to be a very interesting book despite there being SO. MUCH. MATH. Dolnick delves into how we managed to turn to the Renaissance into the modern world by demonstrating how Isaac Newton’s discoveries in math and science made our universe much more understandable. To do this he goes back to the “shoulders of giants” Newton stood on to be able to see what he saw. This takes us back to Kepler and Galileo, who lived during times when to explain the workings of the world was to doubt God and his perfection. Kepler kept his revelations secret until he was almost dead; Galileo died under house arrest. To explain each man’s discoveries, Dolnick feels it necessary to also explain the math– of angles, inverted squares, Pythagorean thereom, mass, velocity, this formula, that formula. He does a clever job at explaining complex equations by using analogies, but analogy or no analogy, I just don’t get it and was bored.

The math stuff made the human stuff way more exciting. Dolnick shows how we take the modern world for granted as we know that there is a solution or an answer for everything. Plague? Fleas. Massive fire that burns down whole city? Poor city planning. Children dying in infancy? Disease or unsanitary conditions. In the 17th century, there was one answer: God. In a world where not much was understood, everyone relied on God’s mercy, which he had in short supply. Galileo was imprisoned and Bruno burned at the stake because they questioned God and hence the whole socio-political order. By Isaac Newton’s time and in another country, thinkers were encouraged to help explain God’s plan and to show his perfection. So Newton and Hooke and Boyle and Halley and Leibniz over in Germany could pursue their whims without persecution. It was very interesting to learn how they used math to solve the mysteries of the world and put the world into perspective. Also how Newton and Leibniz’s feud muddied the philosophical and religious waters as each tried to prove how each other’s theories minimized God’s role in the world while their own elevated him. I think we forget or do not realize how far their world is from ours today, where science is science and God based on your belief. I appreciated Dolnick’s writing because he made many modern day comparisons and he is funny. Very interesting book if you can withstand the math.

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