Book Reviews - Spring 2011

Math & Magic


The roots of Western science

By Sam Kean

March 2, 2011


The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick, Harper, 378 pp., $27.99

England in the 1600s—not a promising time for a revolution, at least not an intellectual one. Life was cheap, and the universe seemed capricious and senseless. The one-two punch of the plague in 1665 and the Great Fire in 1666 left London reeling. Daily life was scarcely better. The murder rate was five times higher than it is to­day, sanitation was nonexistent (Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre could hold 2,000 patrons but had zero bathrooms), and doctors’ treatments almost inevitably made patients’ illnesses worse. Even the royal physicians, the best around, would inadvertently torture poor King Charles II to death in 1685. (In those days, the rich had the worst health care.)

Yet in 1660 that same King Charles granted a charter to form the Royal Society, the world’s first scientific organization. And as Edward Dolnick’s delightful book The Clockwork Universe reveals, the Society’s “geniuses, misfits, and eccentrics” soon fomented a scientific revolution that made sense of the cosmos and lifted humanity out of those dark days. Dolnick argues that, above all, the communal nature of the Royal Society spurred its greatness. Rather than labor in isolation, its fellows inaugurated the modern scientific practices of openly debating and testing ideas.

And what ideas they had. At one moment, the men of the Royal Society seem fairly modern, transfusing blood between animals or using air pumps to create vacuums (defying the ancients, who insisted vacuums couldn’t exist). The next moment they’re grinding up unicorn horns to trap spiders, or blowing powdered human excrement into someone’s eyes to cure glaucoma, or studying how witches use the fat of murdered babies to grease themselves up and slip through keyholes. These men professed rationalism, then applied their rationalism to spooks and angels and miracles. They believed that simple, elegant laws drove the universe and that God had planted secret clues about the Apocalypse in the Bible. Dolnick strikes a remarkable balance in portraying such ideas. We get to chuckle at plenty of batty theories, but we sympathize with Society members, too—we understand their motivations, and we get to see how they grew intellectually through debate and experimentation. Indeed, it was the willingness to test their ideas that separated Society members from the protoscientists that preceded them in history.

Experiments got these men only part way to science, however. The other key element was mathematics, especially calculus. Despite Dolnick’s pleasant-sounding theory that community and society played the midwife of modern science, his thesis founders a bit when Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz stroll onstage. These men needed no peers. Each one invented calculus independently and ex nihilo, a breakthrough that allowed scientists, for the first time, to analyze motion and study a changing and dynamic universe. Science needed these individual titans as much as or more than it needed the communal ethos of the Royal Society. If anything, the antagonism and competition between Newton and Leibniz made them great.

Dolnick isn’t so beholden to his thesis that he ignores the two men’s often nasty rivalry. Both Leibniz and Newton make wonderful biographical subjects—Leibniz for his human failings, Newton for his alien oddities. Leibniz had intellectual ADD and was so vain it was almost endearing. (As a wedding gift he liked to give brides a collection of maxims, his own.) Newton barely ate or slept when a problem seized his mind and lived his life with Olympian detachment from his fellow human beings. (More than Olympian actually—Zeus had his liaisons; Newton probably never had sex.) While Leibniz seemed to have a more modern, more rational outlook on the world overall, Newton without a doubt proved the superior scientist and mathematician, probably the most influential nonreligious person who ever lived. Even the Founding Fathers of the United States, Dolnick argues, drew upon the Newtonian view of a “smooth-running, self-regulating universe” when they devised a checks-and-balances form of government, a system “that ensured political stability” in the affairs of men as surely as Newton’s laws ensured stability in the heavens.

The irony is that, for all his modern influence, Newton was irredeemably medieval. He spent more time studying alchemy and biblical prophecies than calculus or gravity. And he believed fervently in God—one more pagan than Christian, but an eternal and ubiquitous God nonetheless. (Newton would have been aghast to learn that his work helped abolish God from the scientific worldview.) Even Newton’s theory of gravity betrays his archaic mindset. As Dolnick points out, Newton never claimed that he could explain the source of gravity—the reason why bodies attract each other. Leibniz and his lackeys ridiculed Newton for this: What good were fancy descriptive laws if they revealed nothing deeper? Newtonian gravity, they charged, appealed to the “occult forces” of yore. But they couldn’t bait Newton into speculation—gravity was what it was, much like his God, and he didn’t pretend he could explain it. Gravity was revelation.

Modern science tends to ignore the distinction Leibniz and Newton made between mathematical description and metaphysical understanding, but it’s an interesting one nonetheless. Thanks to Einstein, scientists today know far more about gravity than Newton did. But deep down, the whys and wherefores of gravity remain enigmatic. Why should bodies attract each other? Why should it be true that, as 20th-century physicist Paul Dirac once said, “Pick a flower on Earth, and you move the farthest star”? The Clockwork Universe reveals a time when men seriously debated such fundamental questions, and it reminds us that the early learned societies and lone geniuses and their desire to explore such questions, even if they couldn’t answer them, made modern science.

Sam Kean is the author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons.

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