Friday, March 11, 2011

The Clockwork Universe

IYC is in full-swing and I had yet to "officially" start "reading chemistry" - so along came The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick.  According to the subtitle, the book is about "Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World".  Isaac Newton means alchemy so, of course, I had to read it.

Unfortunately, I'm terribly disappointed.

In truth, this book is about how Europe (London, England, in particular) transitioned from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment through mathematics, calculus, and physics.  Newton is a central player, but Kepler and Galileo must put in an appearance beforehand and Leibnitz, the co-discoverer of calculus, is also of importance.  The Royal Society is in the background but no significant part of the book details the founding of the Royal Society.  The subtitle needs some work.  Additionally, there are pages of notes at the back of the book but no symbols in the text to indicate that there is a note; even Oxford Classics throw the reader a little superscript 'o' to indicate a reference.

The book opens by looking at the living conditions at the time of the Restoration in the United Kingdom.  Disease, superstition, and natural disasters sent by God are common.  The twin disasters of plague and the Great Fire of London in 1666 are prominent.  Newton's insterest in alchemy and the Philosopher's Stone are mentioned...and then quickly abandoned as the focus settles on the development of mathematics and geometry to explain the wonder of God's creation.  There are odd disgressions, like one detailing how the best work of geniuses in mathematics and physics is done before the age of 30 - this observation coming between Kepler's discoveries and Newton's.  There are also strange bon mots, like "Kepler would have loved The Da Vinci Code", which makes no sense because a) I'm thinking Kepler didn't read many novels and b) Kepler wouldn't have taken highly to an offshoot of early Christianity that promoted the union and offspring of Jesus Christ and Mary Magadalene.  It's uncalled for, pandering to the lowest common denominator to make up for the lack of science.  The chapters in The Clockwork Universe are short, something that bothers me in a work of non-fiction because it creates the illusion of cliff-hangers when, in reality, there is nary a cliff-hanger in sight.

The Clockwork Universe is a pretty history book with lovely cover art and a nice section of plates (I am partial to pictures and photographs in history books).  This is an important period in scientific thought - reason went from "Take the witch out and burn her" during plague years to a well-ordered universe, ticking like a clock the way God intended, in less than 100 years - and it should be understood by more people (current basic science education as it is, the general population is more likely to learn on their own than in school).  However, parts of the book feel like scientific cop-outs; when Newton and Liebnitz work out the calculus Dolnick actually skips from a graph showing how calculus helps figure out instantaneous speed to "oh, hey, Galileo was right but we're going to skip all the calculations since that's confusing".  This might be popsci but the "Sci" people will read this book, too, and we might like at least some of the calculations since it is also hinted that only the truly dedicated will muddle through Newton's Principia.

I would be less disappointed in The Clockwork Universe had the book been marketed as a history book and had a different subtitle.  For my science history, I'd rather go back and re-read Age of Wonder, a slightly later time period but with better science.