The Clockwork Universe

by Edward Dolnick

Rating: ★★★

The Clockwork Universe tells the story of the early days of the Royal Society, and the scientific revolution that its members marked and inspired. Dolnick does a great job of bringing certain dimensions of the story to light, particularly the role of religion in this early science, where God is an unquestionable component of any system for understanding the world, and great scientists and inventors spent equal if not greater amounts of their time on Biblical study and subjects such as astrology and alchemy which appear occult mysticism to a modern observer.

The book focuses on the great battle between Newton and Leibniz. This is natural, for what essayist could pass up these appropriately titanic intellectual figures who are in many ways diametrically opposed characters. Newton, the humourless, puritanical figure, who wrestles with great problems through sheer willful concentration; Leibniz, the 'last man to know everything', an intellectual dilettante, the master of all trades. Both would invent calculus as a response to the intellectual problems of their day. Newton's claim of priority´goes hand-in-hand with a revelation that he was keeping the whole thing secret, in a defensive manner more typical of the previous era of lone geniuses than the new scientific community.

Just as with the science of the period itself, this battle between scientists has much to do with matters of religion, as becomes clear in the Leibniz-Clarke debates (Clarke being a mouthpiece of Newton), which delve into questions stirred up by Newton's 'clockwork' description of gravity as a binding force for physical reality, from heavenly to earthly motion. Newton called upon the fallibility of his own model as proof of God acting as a maintainer of the universe, Leibniz's lawyer's mind found this blasphemous -- why would a perfect God have wrought so imperfect a creation?

Dolnick writes well, a clear and erudite style cleanly communicating the various topics of interest from the Royal Society's early days, but his coverage is perhaps necessarily quite superficial, outlining the events and some key illustrations before moving on. Perhaps it should be to his credit, though, that I find the topics he addresses so interesting that I want more than he provides in this volume.