Commentary Magazine

The Other Founding Fathers

The Clockwork Universe:
Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
By Edward Dolnick
Harper, 378 pages

In what may well be the most devastating one-sentence book review in the history of English literature, Samuel Johnson said of John Milton’s Paradise Lost that “none ever wished it longer than it is.” Edward Dolnick’s The Clockwork Universe is the opposite—a book so well and entertainingly written and so filled with interesting material that it is one of those rare volumes the reader regrets reaching the end of. Dolnick, formerly the chief science writer for the Boston Globe, here takes on the subject of the Scientific Revolution that transformed the Western intellectual world in the 17th century and that has assured the dominance of the West in world affairs ever since.

As the 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “I believe that if a hundred of the men of the 17th century had been killed in infancy, the modern world would not exist.” Dolnick expertly weaves together the story of these men in all their quirky, warts-and-all humanity and the astonishing discoveries they made, thanks to their genius, to the scientific method they brought into being, to the advances in mathematics they achieved, and to the scientific instruments they created.

The Middle Ages, in popular convention at least, are thought to have given way to modern times around 1500. But historical eras do not end abruptly. No one looked out the window one morning and said, ‘Oh, look, the Middle Ages are over.” Indeed, the very phrase “Middle Ages” was not even coined until 1722. And while the Renaissance had been under way for 300 years by 1600, the Western world was still a very medieval place at the dawn of the 17th century. It would not be at its end.

In February 1600, for instance, Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar, was burned at the stake in the Campo de Fiorini in Rome for various heresies (his statue stands on the spot today). Among the heresies for which he was condemned to a gruesome death was a belief in a multiplicity of worlds. He believed that stars were nothing more than distant suns, around which other worlds revolved.

But that—a commonplace truth today, as exoplanets are being discovered by the dozens every year—contradicted the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Church held that the earth was the center of the universe, surrounded by a set of nested crystal spheres on which all the various astronomical bodies were placed and which revolved about the earth. The fixed stars were on the outermost sphere, beyond which was heaven. More, the heavens were perfect while earth was corrupt.

That cosmology derived from the ancient Greeks, especially Ptolemy, who lived in Alexandria in the second century C.E. And here is, in intellectual terms, the greatest difference between the medieval world and the modern one. In the Middle Ages, the more ancient the writer, the more authoritative he was usually regarded to be. To disagree with Ptolemy (or Aristotle, Galen, etc.) was, to the medieval mind, virtually to challenge God.

But in 1610, only 10 years after the burning of Bruno, Galileo turned the newly invented telescope to the skies. There, as the English ambassador to Venice wrote to King James I, “The Mathematical Professor at Padua . . . hath discovered four new planets rolling about the sphere of Jupiter.” He had also seen a moon pockmarked with craters, spots on the supposedly perfect face of the sun, and the Milky Way resolved into a myriad of stars. In short, the ambassador told the king, “he hath . . . overthrown all former astronomy.” Ptolemy’s (and the Church’s) cosmology was toast, thanks to Galileo’s observations—for here, manifestly, were astronomical bodies that did not revolve around the earth.

Soon, so was Aristotle’s teaching regarding the natural world. Galileo demolished Ptolemy by observation, but he demolished Aristotle by means of experiment. Aristotle had held that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones because they were more “earthy” and thus wanted to reunite with the earth more than the lighter one did. Objects fell too fast for easy measurement so Galileo ingeniously set up a series of inclined planes to slow down the descent and thus discovered the mathematical laws that govern falling objects. (He may also have dropped differently sized cannon balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but that is not known for sure.)

Johannes Kepler, a near contemporary of Galileo, discovered the three laws of planetary motion named for him and thus is, along with Galileo, one of the giants from whose shoulders Newton saw farther. But all of these remarkable minds were limited by the mathematics available to them.

That began to change with René Descartes (1596–1650). Lying in bed one morning, he observed a fly walking on the wall and suddenly realized that he could describe the fly’s path across the wall in a series of numbers—so many inches from the left wall and from the bottom at this point in time and so many inches at the next point. Suddenly time itself could be made visible through mathematics. And that meant that motion could be, too. Isaac Newton and his German contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz, used Cartesian mathematics independently to invent calculus (and argued passionately for the rest of their lives over who deserved the credit). These geniuses, most of whom had fully functioning egos, often argued, sometimes politely and sometimes not. Newton and Blaise Pascal thought that vacuums were real. Descartes and Leibniz thought that a vacuum jar could not be actually empty: the air could be pumped out, but that a more ethereal substance would remain. Descartes contended that the only real vacuum was in Pascal’s head.

None was more querulous than the highly eccentric Isaac Newton, of whom Alexander Pope wrote, “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night, / God said, ‘Let Newton Be!’ and all was light.”

He never married and had ferocious and extended arguments with almost everyone. Afraid that others were stealing his ideas, he carried more than a whiff of paranoia about him. It was only through the patient coaxing of Edmund Halley (who famously predicted the return of the comet named for him) that Newton could be talked into producing the Principia Mathematica, the greatest work of science ever published.

Newton’s accomplishment astounds even today. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar wrote of it: “That all these problems should be enunciated, solved, and arranged in logical sequence in 17 months is beyond human comprehension. It can be accepted only because it is a fact.”

And by the time of Newton’s death in 1727, the world that had burned Giordano Bruno was utterly dead. Indeed, there were dukes and earls among Newton’s pallbearers and he lies in Westminster Abbey beneath a splendid monument. The Enlightenment was well underway.

Dolnick has a very considerable talent for explaining sophisticated and subtle scientific and mathematical concepts without lapsing into jargon. With the help of the many simple diagrams in the book, anyone who managed to get through high school—even those who took a minimum of math—will have no trouble understanding what’s going on. The proof of the Pythagorean theorem he details, for instance (which is not Pythagoras’s original proof), is particularly elegant and easy to grasp.

Dolnick has to cover an extraordinary amount of of ground here and he does so with remarkable ease, bringing the men, the reasoning, the science, and the intellectual world they lived in to brilliant life.

About the Author

John Steele Gordon, an economic historian, is a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY and its blog. His piece “My Uncle, Oscar Hammerstein” appeared in our last issue.

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