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

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Overview

In a world of chaos and disease, one group of driven, idiosyncratic geniuses envisioned a universe that ran like clockwork. They were the Royal Society, the men who made the modern world.

At the end of the seventeenth century, sickness was divine punishment, astronomy and astrology were indistinguishable, and the world’s most brilliant, ambitious, and curious scientists were tormented by contradiction. They believed in angels, devils, and alchemy yet also believed that the ...

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

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Overview

In a world of chaos and disease, one group of driven, idiosyncratic geniuses envisioned a universe that ran like clockwork. They were the Royal Society, the men who made the modern world.

At the end of the seventeenth century, sickness was divine punishment, astronomy and astrology were indistinguishable, and the world’s most brilliant, ambitious, and curious scientists were tormented by contradiction. They believed in angels, devils, and alchemy yet also believed that the universe followed precise mathematical laws that were as intricate and perfectly regulated as the mechanisms of a great clock.

The Clockwork Universe captures these monolithic thinkers as they wrestled with nature’s most sweeping mysteries. Award-winning writer Edward Dolnick illuminates the fascinating personalities of Newton, Leibniz, Kepler, and others, and vividly animates their momentous struggle during an era when little was known and everything was new—battles of will, faith, and intellect that would change the course of history itself.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

As presented in this pivotal history, the prime movers of the 17th century scientific revolution were men of their time, yet against it. Newton, Leibniz, Galileo, and Kepler all lived in a Europe wracked by war, plagues, savage religious conflict, and economic upheaval; yet each constructed cosmological theories in which the universe ran with clockwork perfection. As Edward Dolnick (The Forger's Spell; The Rescue Artist) notes, these seminal deist thinkers believed that God had created flawless mechanisms that they were laboring hard to understand. Dolnick's The Clockwork Universe places these eccentric, tormented geniuses within the contexts of their radically tumultuous age. Editor's recommendation.

Publishers Weekly
Bestselling author Dolnick (The Rescue Artist) focuses on the 17th century and the giants of early science—Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and particularly Newton and Leibniz, whose independent invention of calculus made it possible to describe the moving, changing world and opened up a literal universe of possibilities. Dolnick writes clearly and unpretentiously about science, and writes equally well about the tumultuous historical context for these men's groundbreaking discoveries: the English Civil War, the Thirty Years' War, and in 1665 and 1666 respectively, the Black Plague and the Great Fire of London. Dolnick also offers penetrating portraits of the geniuses of the day, many of them idiosyncratic in the extreme, who offer fertile ground for entertaining writing. (Newton's feuds with Leibniz and Robert Hooke, another scientific titan of the day, are almost as famous as his discoveries.) While Dolnick uncovers nothing new, he has an eye for vivid details in aid of historical recreation, and an affection for his subjects, which all translate into a light but informative read coming suitably on the heels of the Royal Society's 350th anniversary. 8 pages of color photos. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Perhaps the most important thing a reader can take from this book is a sense of just how immense were the intellectual leaps that led to concepts like calculus and the theory of gravity. At first, it seems you're being taken in a completely different direction—nearly the first quarter of the book is spent on historical and cultural background to set the stage for subsequent revelations. Only later does Dolnick (The Forger's Spell; Down the Great Unknown) really begin to explore the work of the intellectual giants of this era. He returns frequently to their personal and religious motivations, highlighting especially the nearly lifelong rivalry between Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Spinning his tale such that it seems to jump around almost at random, Dolnick nevertheless always has an interesting new insight to share, and the brief chapters enhance the feeling of a quick, fun read. VERDICT Those interested in the history of science or even just in exploring how the times in which someone lives shape his thought processes should find this volume fascinating.—Marcia R. Franklin, MLIS, St. Paul
Kirkus Reviews

A lively popular account of early science, culminating in Isaac Newton's gravitational theory.

Dolnick (The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century, 2008, etc.) puts Newton's achievement in the context of his times. England was just recovering from its civil war, dealing with the plague and the Fire of London, a short generation after Galileo nearly came to grief for claiming that the Earth moves. The author begins by showing the vast differences between Newton's times and the modern era. The nascent Royal Society was experimenting on powdered unicorn horn and magical remedies alongside the first serious research with microscopes and vacuum pumps—as much for entertainment as for the advancement of science. Having set the scene, Dolnick circles back through history to reflect on several areas of sciences, in particular physics, astronomy and mathematics, in which Newton's genius produced its most fruitful results. Math in particular was waiting for someone to discover a way to deal with motion and change, a task that required learning how to manipulate (or at least neutralize) infinities.The problemhad frustrated everyone from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Two men found the solution almost simultaneously: Newton and his great rival, Gottfried Leibniz. Newton, however, invented calculus completely on his own, isolated at his country home during the plague years of 1666–67, and kept the discovery to himself. Leibniz discovered it nearly a decade later—and then, bizarrely, he too sat on the knowledge for several years before publishing his findings. Eventually, Edmund Halley persuaded Newton to publish his theories of gravity and its mathematical underpinnings, creating a paradigm of scientific work that would last for nearly 200 years. Dolnick effectively paints the characters of the two great antagonists, as well as the men around them, the politics and personalities and the atmosphere in which they worked. While the discovery of calculus is a key theme of the book, no math beyond simple geometry is needed to follow it.

Colorful, entertainingly written and nicely paced—a fine introductory text on Newton and the scientific revolution.

Ann Finkbeiner
Dolnick's book is lively and the characters are vivid.
—The New York Times
Charlotte Observer
“Edward Dolnick’s smoothly written history of the scientific revolution tells the stories of the key players and events that transformed society.”
New York Times Book Review
“Dolnick’s book is lively and the characters are vivid.”
Wall Street Journal
“A character-rich, historical narrative.”
Wall Street Journal
“A character-rich, historical narrative.”
Charlotte Observer
“Edward Dolnick’s smoothly written history of the scientific revolution tells the stories of the key players and events that transformed society.”
New York Times Book Review
“Dolnick’s book is lively and the characters are vivid.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061719516
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/8/2011
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 572,654
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Dolnick is the author of Down the Great Unknown and the Edgar Award-winning The Rescue Artist. A former chief science writer at the Boston Globe, he has written for The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. He lives with his wife near Washington, D.C.

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Table of Contents

Chronology xiii

Preface xv

Part 1 Chaos

1 London, 1660 3

2 Satan's Claws 7

3 The End of the World 13

4 "When Spotted Death Ran Arm'd Through Every Street" 20

5 Melancholy Streets 25

6 Fire 29

7 God at His Drawing Table 34

8 The Idea That Unlocked the World 42

9 Euclid and Unicorns 50

10 The Boys' Club 58

11 To the Barricades! 66

12 Dogs and Rascals 72

13 A Dose of Poison 76

14 Of Mites and Men 83

15 A Play Without an Audience 90

16 All in Pieces 97

Part 2 Hope and Monsters

17 Never Seen Until This Moment 105

18 Flies as Big as a Lamb 114

19 From Earthworms to Angels 120

20 The Parade of the Horribles 126

21 "Shuddering Before the Beautiful" 129

22 Patterns Made with Ideas 135

23 God's Strange Cryptography 140

24 The Secret Plan 145

25 Tears of Joy 152

26 Walrus with a Golden Nose 157

27 Cracking the Cosmic Safe 162

28 The View from the Crow's Nest 169

29 Sputnik in Orbit, 1687 177

30 Hidden in Plain Sight 182

31 Two Rocks and a Rope 187

32 A Fly on the Wall 190

33 "Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare" 194

34 Here Be Monsters! 200

35 Barricaded Against the Beast 207

36 Out of the Whirlpool 212

Part 3 Into the Light

37 All Men Are Created Equal 219

38 The Miracle Years 225

39 All Mystery Banished 233

40 Talking Dogs and Unsuspected Powers 237

41 The World in Close-Up 244

42 When the Cable Snaps 253

43 The Best of All Possible Feuds 259

44 Battle's End 266

45 The Apple and the Moon 271

46 A Visit to Cambridge 278

47 Newton Bears Down 281

48 Trouble with Mr. Hooke 288

49 The System of the World 293

50 Only Three People 297

51 Just Crazy Enough 301

52 In Search of God 307

53 Conclusion 314

Acknowledgments 321

Notes 323

Bibliography 353

Illustration Credits 361

Index 363

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 25 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 25 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 9, 2012

    Well worth the read

    At Newton's funeral dukes and lords bore his coffin to its final resting place in England's national cathedral with honors and distinctions literally above that of princes. The fate of Newton's nemesis, Leibniz, not much less of a towering intellectual figure of the 17th/18th centuries, was an unmarked grave and, until recently, relative obscurity. Although Edward Dolnick's book, The Clockwork Universe, is concerned primarily with the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the dawn of modern science, there is enough detail in the book about the times to raise the question - Why England? The answer in part, according to Dolnick, lies with the founding of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge and, in part, with contrasting theological views of England and the continent. Neither Newton nor Leibniz were born to nobility or great ease. They both succeeded on the strength of their intellects. But while Leibniz was never little more than an intellectual court jester dependent on the whim of the continental European aristocracy, we find Newton comfortably enough ensconced in a university position at an early age with enough resources to support a ample experimental laboratory and enough leisure time to ponder and publish on the deepest secrets of the universe. Dolnick has provided a very readable, thoroughly research and well-documented (more than 25% of the text is devoted to notes and references) history of the intellectual development of calculus and the physics (at least in Newton's case) that sometimes preceded (e.g. Galileo) and sometimes followed close behind. For some reason the author chose to break the text into 53 chapters (averaging less than 6 pages per chapter) which tends to break the flow of the arguments unnecessarily at times. A little more technical detail on the fundamentals of calculus and a little more on the temper of the times in England could have fit nicely into the white space left by so many chapter breaks. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A real page turner for a non-fiction book...

    Well written, very interesting, insightful, and I like the relatively short chapters that were quick to introduce an idea, get to the point, and move onto the next chapter, the next idea. It was fascinating to be introduced to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the great rivel with Newton in terms of calculus and its introduction. It was also fascinating to learn that it wasn't just religious leaders that were not fans of science, but other intellectuals of the day, like Jonathan Swift. Well worth the time and money.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 20, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Hang on...

    Read this and you will be amazed..If you are not a math person your mouth will be shut after all the facts you will learn from these men and the "Age of Genius"....Good writing and excellent research that was done by Dolnick...

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 20, 2011

    Makes a dry subject as engaging as a novel

    When I try to tell people that this is a book about the English Royal Society and Newton, their eyes glaze over. But Dolnick makes the math and science understandable (dare I say exciting?) and the characters fascinating. But more, I found the descriptions of England before and during that time to be outrageous--there were times when I gasped at the filth and depraved understanding of nature and society that existed at that time. I constantly bother my family and friends with some arcane factoid gleaned from the treasure trove presented in this well researched and readable book

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 1, 2013

    Good account.

    Very good account of the history of the royal society and Newton's involvement with the people in it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2013

    Very good read

    This book ties in perfectly between history, religion, and science.

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  • Posted April 3, 2012

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  • Posted February 15, 2012

    GREAT READ!!

    very informative, very fun. electromagnetism (geo) history and how we in currently interpret the earths magnetic field.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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