Engrossing science let down by poor history

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern WorldThe Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The year 1660 was a turning point in British political, cultural and intellectual life. The restoration of King Charles II, after eleven brutal years of military dictatorship, awoke a new spirit of vibrancy and optimism in Britain. And one of the earliest yet most enduring results of the new era was the formation of the Royal Society.

It was a heady time and there are heady tales to be told of it, both in history and in fiction. Among the most successful of the latter are Neal Stephenson’s three-volume Baroque Cycle, and one suspects that it is their readership whom Edward Dolnick may have had had in mind when writing The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern Universe.

Dolnick’s writing style is immediately engaging; he is good-humoured, possessed of a dry wit and a pleasing turn of phrase. In his presentation of mathematical and scientific ideas, he takes great pains to render them clear to an audience not only of non-specialists but of complete novices. He writes of science like one of those inspirational teachers who can make these things make sense to the least scientific of students.

The book is structured in three parts. The first sets the historical scene of 1660s London – the Restoration, the plague of 1665, the Great Fire, the early work of the Royal Society. Part Two goes back in time to discuss the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo and even the ancient Greeks, to provide the scientific context for Newton’s discoveries. Part Three focuses on Newton himself, his discoveries in the fields of mathematics, physics and astronomy, and his long-running feud with Leibnitz over the “invention” (sic) of calculus. (Surely mathematical laws are discovered, not invented?)

In Parts Two and Three Dolnick is clearly on home turf, writing with the easy authority of one who understands both his subject and how to communicate it. The book is badly let down, however, by Part One, the historical element – ironically entitled “Chaos”, though probably for the wrong reasons.

Dolnick is a scientist; he is no historian. He is at his weakest when discussing religious belief, and unfortunately takes up a great deal of the first 100 pages with this discussion. Whilst he makes some useful points about the generality of religious belief at the time – in particular the universal belief in eternal damnation and hellfire – most of his discussion is a gross over-simplification, treating religion as something static and homogeneous, ignoring the wide spectrum of beliefs that characterised the seventeenth century, ignoring the distinction between religious belief itself (influencing what a scientist might be prepared to believe) and Church doctrine (which dictated what they would be able to teach or publish).

For example, he observes (p. 98) that it “was not coincidence … that seventeenth-century England welcomed science, on the grounds that science supported religion, and thrived; and seventeenth-century Italy feared science, on the grounds that science undermined religion, and decayed”; but he fails to distinguish anywhere in his narrative between Protestantism and Catholicism (or between their respective views on scientific discovery), or even to mention the Reformation as a key factor in creating an environment for the pursuit of scientific endeavour.

Equally, much of Part One is overlaid with a wide-eyed naïveté and bemusement better suited to a high-school student’s first essay on an unfamiliar subject. For example, Dolnick cannot quite get his head around the fact that Newton and his fellows, discoverers of the fundamental laws of physics, still believed in astrology, witchcraft, alchemy and quack medicine. He gazes in stupefied wonder at the fact that the Royal Society witnessed many experiments that we would now consider ridiculous. (How do we know these things are ridiculous? Because of our advanced scientific understanding – understanding gained through centuries of experiments, both groundbreaking and, well, ridiculous.)

Nor does he give any serious consideration to the political and social context – to the Restoration as a major political event which provided the climate and the catalyst for a new spirit of scientific enquiry. (Indeed, King Charles II is depicted as a caricature and a buffoon, rather than as a canny ruler who re-established domestic peace and economic prosperity in his realm after decades of factionalism, brutality and civil war.) In these respects, Dolnick’s over-simplification ends up misleading the reader; ironically Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver – for all that it is fiction – offers far more insight than Dolnick into what made these men tick.

The narrative becomes more credible in Part Two, though Dolnick’s chronology becomes somewhat haphazard, jumping about from the ancient Greeks to the sixteenth century to the seventeenth to Darwin in the nineteenth, with no apparent logic or reason. His regular references to what “Galileo and Newton” would have believed (e.g. p. 124) would be extremely confusing to a reader who doesn’t already have the chronology firmly lodged in their head. (Galileo died at age 77 in the year Newton was born.) The timeline provided at the start of the book does not wholly compensate for this.

The book’s subtitle is also somewhat misleading, in that the Royal Society plays only a bit part in Dolnick’s narrative; “Newton, Leibnitz and the Birth of the Modern Universe” would be a more accurate description.

Another minor irritant: whilst the book is peppered with quotations in support of Dolnick’s arguments, many of the direct quotations from writers of the period are poorly referenced – the endnotes often cite only a secondary source, usually another modern-day historian’s work, rather than the primary source of the quotation.

Whilst by the end of the book the reader may have a better knowledge of aspects of the seventeenth century, for a proper understanding of the period one must turn to the work of people like Lisa Jardine. Nevertheless, The Clockwork Universe – or at least its second and third parts – offer as thorough, accessible and comprehensive an overview of the science of the seventeenth century as the lay reader could hope for; and for this reason alone it belongs on the shelf of anyone with an interest in this remarkable period of scientific discovery.

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1 Response to Engrossing science let down by poor history

  1. Pingback: A gamble that paid off « Things Unrespected

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