The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
Harper Perennial (2011)
A compelling account of “a group of scientists who set out to read God’s mind” and what they learned
Authors of many (most?) of the great works of non-fiction make brilliant use of the basic elements of a narrative. That is certainly true of Edward Dolnick and of The Clockwork Universe. Its setting is London in the 1660s. As for its cast of main characters, they include Robert Boyle, Lord Brouncker, Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, and other members of the “The Royal Society,” founded in November 1660 when granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II. They and their contemporaries (notably Gottfried Leibnitz) “stood upon the shoulders” of other major “players” in years past, such as Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Francis Bacon. The dramatic tension that energizes Dolnick’s lively narrative is the result of their struggles to read God’s mind. 17th century scientists’ perception of God as a mathematician who had written His laws in code. Their task was to find the key. In essence, their efforts serve as this book’s plot. Newton serves as the chief protagonist. Dolnick’s focus “is largely on the climax of the story, especially Newton’s unveiling, in 1687, of his theory of gravitation.” But there are also other major breakthroughs and “false trails” that serve as subplots.
As he explains, “at some point in the 1660s, a new idea came into the world. The notion was that the natural world not only follows rough-and-ready patterns but also exact, formal, mathematical laws. Though it looked haphazard and sometimes chaotic, the universe was in fact an intricate and perfectly regulated clock. Nature’s laws were vast in range but few in number; God’s operating manual filled only a line or two. For example, when Newton learned how gravity works, “he announced not merely a discovery but a ‘universal law’ that embraced every object in creation…God was a mathematician, seventeenth-century scientists firmly believed. He had written His in a mathematical code.” Separately and in collaboration, the scientists saw themselves as code breakers.
Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer fresh slices of fruit as samples. In that same spirit, I now provide a few brief excerpts to suggest the thrust and flavor of Dolnick’s style.
On the importance and significance of mathematics: “To the Greek way of thinking, the everyday world was a grimy, imperfect version of an ideal, unchanging, abstract one. Mathematics was the highest art because it was the discipline that, more than any other, dealt with eternal truths. In the world of mathematics, nothing dies or decays.” (Page 43)
On the Royal Society’s motto: “Science today is a grand and formal enterprise, but the modern age of science began as a free-for-all. The idea was to see for yourself rather than rely on anyone else’s authority. The Royal Society’s motto was Nullius in Verba, Latin for, roughly, ‘Don’t take anyone’s word for it,’ and early investigators embraced that freedom with something akin to giddiness.” (58)
On Aristotle’s legacy: “It was Galileo more than any other single figure who finally did away with Aristotle. Galileo’s great coup was to show that for once the Greeks had been too cautious. Not only were the heavens built according to a mathematical plan, but so was the ordinary, earthly realm…This was a twofold revolution. First, the kingdom of mathematics suddenly claimed a vast new territory for itself. Second, all those parts of the world that could not be described mathematically were pushed aside as not quite worthy of study. Galileo made sure that that no one missed the news. Nature is ‘a book written in mathematical characters,’ he insisted, and anything that could not be framed in the language of equations was ‘nothing but a name.'” (93 and 94)
On relativity: “Galileo not only defended Copernicus against his critics but, in the course of making his argument, devised a theory of relativity. Three centuries before Einstein’s version, Galileo’s theory proved nearly as hard for common sense to grasp…Nothing is special about a motionless world. Smooth, steady motion looks and feels exactly the same as utter stillness. The strongest argument against Copernicus — that he began by assuming something that was plainly ridiculous — was invalid.” It is noteworthy that Galileo reached his far-ranging conclusion “by means of the humblest experiments available.” (171 and 172)
Today, relativity could be explained by noting that a glass of water on a table in a dining car of a train traveling 200 mph behaves the same as a glass of water on a kitchen table in a residence. In fact, Einstein once observed, “If you can’t explain an idea to a six year-old, you really don’t understand it.”
When concluding his brilliant examination of a group of scientists who set out to read God’s mind and what they learned, Dolnick reiterates the fact that, in all the important ways, Newton was not like other men. “Perhaps we would do better to acknowledge the gulf than try to bridge it. At Cambridge, Newton could occasionally be seen standing in the courtyard, staring at the ground, drawing diagrams in the gravel with a stick. Eventually he would retreat indoors. His fellow professors did not know what the lines represented, but they stepped carefully around them, to avoid hindering the work of the lonely genius struggling to decifer God’s codebook.”
This is one of very few books in recent years that, as I reached the final chapter when reading it for the first time, I regretted that it would soon end. Now on to Edward Dolnick’s previously published works.