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The Clockwork Universe

by Edward Dolnick

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The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick
© Harper
Harper, February 2011

Edward Dolnick's The Clockwork Universe is the story of a group of scientists who set out to read God's mind." These geniuses - Gallileo, Newton, Kepler, and a host of others - wanted to find the key that would unlock God's laws. These laws, many of them thought, had been written in mathematical code. If they could discover the code, they could prove the existence of God.

They were men who lived in two worlds. There was the world of superstition and ignorance (not bathing kept disease and infection out of the body, for example) in which they had come to maturity. In the other was a brave new world in which certain laws would reveal how the universe worked with clockwork precision. As such, they were dangerous men for they challenged the status quo and the religious rulings that underpinned nearly every aspect of life.

In the mid-seventeenth century, London's Royal Society reflected this divergent thinking well. While members carried out many experiments that were changing the way scientists thought about the world the underlying thesis still held sway, that God created the world even to its most minute detail. While scientific advances were being made, old beliefs were still held, such as blowing dried, powdery human excrement into the eyes to cure cataracts. Yet, the Royal Society believed that experiments should be conducted in the laboratory and in plain sight. Knowledge was to be shared, a watershed concept. Curiously, the two giants of the time, Newton and Leibniz, were particularly secretive, as we shall hear later.
The seventeenth century was a brutal time. Criminal punishments were merciless and grist for public approbation. Science was hardly less callous. One scientist planned to inject his servant with poison to observe his reaction. Dogs were cut open to remove the spleen then sewn up to live, or die. Plays and books (Gulliver's Travels and Candide) satirized scientists such as an inventor engaged in "an operation to reduce human Excrement to its original Food." Mathematics garnered extra ridicule due to its ephemeral nature that butted heads with the practicality of England. But, it was the mathematicians "who invented the engine that powered the scientific revolution."

Gallileo had led the charge to mathematize and quantify the world. Whereas Aristotle had asked why rocks fall or flames rise, Gallileo asked how. Do falling rocks go faster and faster, for example? Predicating science on common sense was replaced by abandoning the old questions and looking for mathematical precision. It was Kepler who stated the credo of the seventeenth century scientists: "My aim is to show that the machine of the universe is not similar to a divine animated being but simulates a clock."
Dolnick's clear and readable thesis builds to the discovery/invention of calculus (independently) by Isaac Newton in England and Gottfried Leibniz in Germany. Their creations led to the "bitterest feud in the history of science." For Newton the only thing worse than having someone else receive credit for work he had done was to publish his work and expose it, and himself, to criticism. Leibniz thought his math was just part of a larger puzzle. He believed that he could know everything while God had created a perfect world, the best design. Newton, on the other hand, believed there were questions beyond our comprehension. Leibniz supposed we could add up all the pros and cons and compute a final grade for God's world, which was already the best of all possible alternatives.

Both men were attempting to discover a way to "stop time in its tracks." Working independently, they envisioned the elements of time as "snapshots" that followed closely on one another. Dolnick's explanation of how they were able to accomplish this feat is remarkably clear even to a non-mathematician. This new math was calculus, "the philosopher's stone that changed everything it touched to gold," according to the historian E.T. Bell.
Newton and Leibniz praised the other in public but reviled the other in private with gusto. All had been fine until they realized they were rivals, each claiming to be the sole deviser of calculus. Newton conceived it first; Leibniz published first. Leibniz's method of notation was so clear that it remains the standard 300 years later. Yet, it was Newton who so eloquently demonstrated the power of calculus with his theory of universal gravitation. (The apple is a myth Newton added for color.) Then, through his calculations, for example, he proved that Kepler's assertion that the planets moved along an elliptical plane was correct.

Edward Dolnick has written extensively and popularly about science. He was the chief science writer for the Boston Globe and has degrees in theoretical mathematics from Brandeis and MIT. In addition to a number of books, he has written for the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times Magazine among others.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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