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.
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."
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.
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.