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The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

3.89 of 5 stars 3.89  ·  rating details  ·  2,154 ratings  ·  267 reviews
The Clockwork Universe is the story of a band of men who lived in a world of dirt and disease but pictured a universe that ran like a perfect machine. A meld of history and science, this book is a group portrait of some of the greatest minds who ever lived as they wrestled with nature’s most sweeping mysteries. The answers they uncovered still hold the key to how we unders ...more
Hardcover, 378 pages
Published February 8th 2011 by Harper
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Will Byrnes
Chaotic as it looked, these earliest scientists declared, the universe was in fact an intricate and perfectly regulated clockwork. This was the tail-end of Shakespeare's century, and these were brilliant, ambitious, confused, conflicted men. They believed in angels and alchemy and the devil, and they believed that the universe followed precise, mathematical laws. -- from the author’s website
London in 1660 was a pretty gross place. Refuse and worse clogged the streets. Buildings were thrown toget
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Cari
While browsing the bookstore and idly picking up anything that looked vaguely interesting, I found The Clockwork Universe, which caught my admittedly somewhat eccentric, wide-ranging curiosity. Within a few hours I had a line of people calling dibs on reading it next (my mother, an ex, a geeky friend, a not-so-geeky drinking buddy) and only one dear friend (a pretentious robot on occasion) rolling his eyes before wandering off to the rest of my bookshelves. I found this burst of enthusiasm (or c ...more
Angela
Old-timey science! It’s not just dudes in powdered wigs! Naw, it's about their ecstatic sense of wonder, grueling focus, and sometimes batshit craziness! Dolnick is an incredible spinner of yarns. He builds a narrative with humor and panache, whether it’s something inspiring like Newton’s drive to study the infinite, or something just weird, like Leeuwenhoek looking at his own sperm through a microscope. Also, hurray for delicious, bite-sized chapters!

However, Dolnick is a better science writer
...more
Ben
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-

...more
Lucas Miller
Well-written science nonfiction is a treat that I relish and this book delivers in spades. Newton is the book's main focal point but it also spends considerable time detailing the contributions of Galileo, Kepler, Leibniz, Hook, Leeuwenhoek and others. The description of calculus was clear and even, I have to admit, compelling (I have a BA rather than a BS because I refused to take calculus). The religious devotion of these pioneers was surprising and Dolnick does a nice job of pointing out the ...more
Jason
The best passage of this book is in the conclusion of chapter 9:
Scientists tend to have little interest in history, even the history of their own subject. They turn to the past only to pluck out the discoveries and insights that turned out to be fruitful—Boyle, for instance, is known today for “Boyle’s law,” relating pressure and volume in gases—and they toss the rest aside.
In fields where the notion of progress is indisputable, such disdain for the past is common. The explanation is not so much
...more
Kevin O'Brien
This was a slightly tricky book to rate. I gave it four stars out of five on the merit of the book itself, though I would recommend it mostly to people who are interested in the history of science but not heavily read in that area already. This book is not one that sets a standard for scholarship, but is a well-written introduction to a worthy topic.

Isaac Newton is the primary focus of this book, though his rival Leibniz also comes in for some discussion. And Newton is valuable because he repres
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Greg Tatum
The most salient part of this book is the exploration of the switch from a mathematics dealing with discrete numbers, to a mathematics that could deal with continuous and infinite numbers. In other terms this book explores the rise of calculus and its repercussions on the world. My expectations of the book were different than what it delivered. The publisher's summary stated very succinctly, "The Clockwork Universe is the fascinating and compelling story of the bewildered geniuses of the Royal S ...more
Tim
Overall, not a bad book and I did learn some new things. I'm definitely not a fan of the audio book reader, though. That said, I eventually got used to him and didn't mind in the end.

I didn't like the first portion of the book which is basically spent describing plagues and a fire in London. That said, the author does an excellent job describing the various contributions of Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, Descartes and Galileo. The explanations are pitched at a level for the layman and are well done
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Jason Pettus
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

This is one of those "NPR-worthy" nonfiction titles I'm a fan of, in this case a concise look at the formation of Britain's Royal Society in the 1600s, essentially the very first scientific organization in human history, closely associated with Sir Isaac Newton and one of the main subjects of Neal Stephens
...more
Converse
Edward Dolnick has written a good popular history of the 17th century development of modern physics (laws of motion and gravity), the part of mathematics called calculus, and astronomy. I would say the sub-title is a bit misleading, as the Royal Society as a group doesn't have much to do with most the story, although several of the individuals involved, such as Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, Robert Hooke, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz were members.

The story starts more or less with Nicolaus Coper
...more
Ken
I picked this up after hearing the author appear on WNYC public radio.

This is a superb idea for a book: not just a history of science, but a history of the scientific method. It's about the age when thinkers stopped prioritizing "knowledge from authority" and started developing methods for experimentation and discovery.

And it's extremely well-written, evocative, fascinating.
Bonnie
Brilliant book. I am always searching for history books that read like novels, and this is one of those. Historical figures like Leibniz and Newton were like richly textured characters that I felt I knew. The history parts were brill, and certainly worth reading this book for.

The only downside is that Dolnick tries to teach me math. Hahaha, no one can succeed at that! I mean, if anyone could, it would be Dolnick. He simplifies things beautifully and provides startlingly good analogies. Unfortuna
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Aeron
This book is extremely well written. Dolnick makes the material seem easy to understand and relevant to a modern audience. It is primarily about Isaac Newton, and essentially makes a case that Newton was so far above and beyond any genius we've ever seen that it's hard to fathom. What Newton did for mathematics and physics is staggering. But Dolnick also points out the changing world at that time - the group of natural philosophers of the Royal Society working to figure out how the world really ...more
Bill

Delnick provides an interesting and well written history of the development of modern science by such famous men as Galileo, Descartes, Kepler, Newton and Leibniz. These men lived in the 1600s when life was brutal. Life expectancy was 30; child mortality was rampant; garbage, including human waste, was piled high in cities; people washed, if at all, once per year; and plagues killed thousands. Men also believed that God punished people for their sins in fiery hell but He was also the creator of
...more
Micah
Jul 13, 2013 Micah rated it 2 of 5 stars
Shelves: box-9
Edward Dolnick's The Clockwork Universe is a popular introduction to science in the 17th Century. It's an easy read and more-or-less interesting throughout, but it's definitely history/science "lite." I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but popular history tends to construct very simple narratives to explain extraordinarily complex social developments, thus effacing the most interesting--and troubling--parts of the story. I don't think Dolnik errs too badly in this regard, but I did ...more
Kristi Thielen
Concise, crystal clear look at the great scientists of the 17th century (principally Newton) and the cultural environment in which they labored.

The religion devotion of the scientists and how it hemmed in even the most gifted, is fascinating. Witness Newton straining to support his belief that the ancient wisemen (Moses, Solomon, Pythagoras) all understood the science of Newton's day, including the concept of gravity, but that the wisdom had been lost to time. And when "rediscovered" by the Gree
...more
Scott Killen
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Tinav
The 1600s were fascinating (the first thing I learned from this book). It's a time at which religion and alchemy began to give way to the more modern scientific methods and thinking we take for granted today.

Isaac Newton was (forgive me) a Royal Pain (the second thing I learned from this book), possibly the most brilliant mathematician, physicist, and thinker in history but also a paranoid egomaniac. It's funny to read about now, how he wrote up all of his findings in hundreds of journals, in co
...more
Monica
I enjoyed this book greatly. It combined in a highly readable and entertaining format two of my favorite subjects of interest: science and history. And through reading this book I was able to relive and re-enjoy that "Eureka!" moment I experienced as a college student taking my first Calculus class, when suddenly I had an insight into what calculus was and why it worked the way it did that informed the entirely of the rest of my scientific/mathematical education. Those of you are are wary of mat ...more
Debra
A fascinating look at the history of science and mathematics, carefully set into the society of the time. Anyone who knows me knows that I am all but innumerate. I admit that much of the mathematics went over my head - but the book is so written that I was able to glean the gist of it all anyway. I am sure a knowledge of calculus would produce a deeper understanding, but that won't happen in my lifetime.

Attitudes toward experimentation and observation are just another reason why I really do not
...more
Misty
The Clockwork Universe gives us a really good look at the discoveries Galileo, Leibniz, Newton, Copernicus and the early Royal Society made which helped usher in the modern world, a world not limited to the superstitions and fears of what marked science and Western culture before Newton's discovery of gravity and its properties were made. Dolnick sets up brilliantly the scientific world of that time, leading us on a journey to one of the greatest discoveries in science at that time. He explores ...more
Brenton
This is a very accessible history of some of the titans of modern science. Leibniz and Newton feature prominently. Difficult scientic concepts are explained lucidly. Dolnick has a great sense of humor, and is quick to remind us that some of the great scientists also had some perfectly absurd ideas. He also demonstrates that the great scientists were not all crypto-atheists as many contemporary scientists would have us believe. The most memorable passage concerned someone questioning the astronom ...more
Meg
Dolnick takes the scientific and mathematical discoveries of the 1600s and makes them accessible while simultaneously arguing that their cumulative impact was the birth of modern, rational thought. I did not fully understand all the functions of physics and calculus before, but feel well grounded by this book. It has a well-argued thesis, with wonderful and seamless incorporation of quotations. The descriptions of characters and daily life are evocative. Also, the book has 53 chapters in just un ...more
Ann Michael
A good overview--mostly of things I know about through other reading and classes, but a nice summation and an easy read. Dolnick manages to add some insights for the modern reader who wants a little more "personality" in the history of science--you'll find that here (more about Newton's personality, or Liebnitz's, than in a science-heavy book). Yet he does explain/make connections for the reader who hasn't had a clear idea of why all those 17th-C theories matter so much. A kind of personable "St ...more
JS Found
A thrilling snapshot of the birth of modern science in Restoration London, and how Isaac Newton invented the calcalus and discovered the laws of gravity, thereby making an irrational world rational, and uncovering, to him, the language of God. Calculus is explained in clear and simple terms, not all of it, but the general idea. More importantly, it's explained by using some of the models and problems its inventors used to come up with it. The law of gravity is also lucidly explained. This is a s ...more
Deborah
Had this been a print book rather than an audio book I would never have finished it. As it was I ploughed through, with the book never quite delivering. The background history in the initial parts of the book went on endlessly - way beyond scene setting yet adding little to the history I already knew. This section seemed to be really talking down to the casual reader - 'can you imagine how smelly that would be?' - not quite, but you get the picture. Considering Newton appeared in the title of th ...more
Evelyn
It's been a while since I read a nonfiction book this readable, and I'm glad that I picked this one up (on a whim). Having just finished James Gleick's biography of Isaac Newton, I was expecting him to play a central role, though I was surprised at just how central. Was it my familiarity bias making it seem that way or was it truly that everyone in the 1600s must be defined in terms of Newton? Though, to be fair, the earlier astronomers were indeed given their own treatment.

Well-written, althoug
...more
Brad Wheeler
The title's a bit grandiose, I think, but The Clockwork Universe does a great job of explaining how the world changed from something barely post-medieval to something that more closely resembles the world we live in. The author does a great job of impressing on the reader exactly how momentous many of the discoveries being made were. For instance, we think of gravity as something that just is, and we don't think about how it works. But the idea of an invisible force that works instantaneously at ...more
Rex Libris
Overall this was very a good book. It described how Newton and Leibniz came to discover calculus independent of one another. additonally it portraits of other leading men of science during the 1600's, as well as the ancient Greeks and famous scientists throughout history.

Dolnick's treatment of Liebniz was very sympathetic, which is far different from the way history has generally treated him. However, I found it very interesting that the author never mentioned Monadology.

One of the defects of th
...more
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Edward Dolnick is an American writer, formerly a science writer at the Boston Globe. He has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and the Washington Post, among other publications. His books include Madness on the Couch : Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis (1998) and Down the Great Unknown : John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy T ...more
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“The usual consolations of life, friendship and sex included, appealed to Newton hardly at all. Art, literature, and music had scarcely more allure. He dismissed the classical sculptures in the Earl of Pembroke's renowned collection as "stone dolls." He waved poetry aside as "a kind of ingenious nonsense." He rejected opera after a single encounter. "The first Act I heard with pleasure, the 2d stretch'd my patience, at the 3d I ran away.” 0 likes
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