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

3.9  ·  Rating Details ·  3,622 Ratings  ·  398 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 toge
Feb 19, 2012 Cari rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography, 2012
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
Jean Poulos
Sep 19, 2016 Jean Poulos rated it really liked it
The book takes place in the 1600 hundreds in Europe. Superstition and belief in the supernatural were common place. To this background Dolnick tells us the stories of Isaacs Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Descartes, and Leibniz. These men discovered and described the forces that kept the earth, moon and all the planets spinning in their orbits, thereby ushering in the modern era. At the beginning of the book the author discusses the plague and life in the 1600s; he also discusses diarist S ...more
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
Apr 10, 2011 Ben rated it liked it
Shelves: reviewed
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-

Kevin O'Brien
Mar 26, 2012 Kevin O'Brien rated it really liked it
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
Feb 25, 2016 Max rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
In 1600 the philosopher Bruno was burned at the stake for proclaiming that the earth was just one of many planets in solar systems throughout the universe. In 1633 Galileo was sentenced to imprisonment, subsequently commuted to house arrest, by the Roman Inquisition for saying that the planets revolved around the sun. But in 1705 for Newton’s work showing gravity held the planets in their orbits around the sun, he was knighted by Queen Anne. Two years earlier Newton had been elected President of ...more
Greg Tatum
Dec 04, 2013 Greg Tatum rated it really liked it
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
Emily (BellaGrace)
Apr 09, 2016 Emily (BellaGrace) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I've been picking at this book for several months now. For me it wasn't a book to sit and read in one setting - some of the topics are pretty heavy and I preferred to read it in sections. For anyone interested in the ideas in this book, but don't want to read it I recommend an episode of Nova that aired last month link: The Great Math Mystery which explains Newtons discoveries of gravity and why falling objects move at the same speed regardless of weight. Another awesome video by a science progr ...more
Jan 15, 2015 Ms.pegasus rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in the history of science
Recommended to Ms.pegasus by: GR friend Will Byrnes' review
Dolnick's claim that the 17th century was the birth of modernity is tempered as the book progresses. By that time, painting had already moved from static religious iconography to application of perspective, chiaroscuro, and portraiture toward a kind of dramatic expression that appeals to the modern eye. Science in the 17th century was still, however, a mix of contradictions. Isaac Newton, the scientific genius of the era, expended considerable time and energy on experiments in alchemy. Members o ...more
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
Mar 22, 2013 Aeron rated it really liked it
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
Lucas Miller
Dec 23, 2011 Lucas Miller rated it really liked it
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
Jan 25, 2012 Jason rated it really liked it
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
Apr 03, 2011 Ken rated it it was amazing
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.
Jason Pettus
Apr 12, 2011 Jason Pettus rated it really liked it
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. 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
Nov 04, 2015 Daphne rated it liked it
Shelves: quest
My favorite section was the last half. I love math, but only applied mathematics. I've always struggled with pure math for maths sake, but enjoyed it when it was involved in my other courses like chemistry and biology. The author describing the discovery of calculus and why it mattered I found fascinating.

The first half was a very general overview of the time period this book is centered around. It was interesting, and if someone hasn't already read dozens of general history books about this ti
This was fine. Interesting enough. Good at explaining some of the trickier concepts easily. Very basic overview of everything, though, and a bit too pop-y - when you compare something to The DaVinci Code or posters on someone's wall... no...

eta: Some of my impression of the book may have been the audiobook narrator. I didn't care for him. The book may be better on it's own, but it's definitely still pop-sciencey and not what I was expecting.
Dec 12, 2015 Ambrosia rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook
I had some trepidation in starting this book. Straight mathematics has never been my strong suit - I'm great at applications and concepts, but the degrees of abstraction necessary for purely numerical proofs always makes my head hurt. Fortunately, however, while there's a certain amount of space dedicated to mathematics, the author does a wonderful job explaining how it ties into reality, and (especially) how the abstraction and simplification was necessary to understanding the somewhat messier ...more
Aug 15, 2015 John rated it really liked it
I started off reading this for work purposes but, by the end of the working day, realized I was enjoying it a whole heck of a lot more than the piece of leisure reading I'd begun that morning. So I put aside (and have since discarded) my leisure read and kept going with this instead! Over the next couple of days I was reading it with all the fervor I might have read a thriller, albeit pausing every now and then to make a note.

The book's subtitle, while technically correct, is a tad misleading. T
Carissa Goble
Mar 19, 2016 Carissa Goble rated it it was amazing
Probably my favorite non-fiction read since Devil and the White City. The Clockwork Universe tackles an ambitious amount of material and with it oversimplifies a lot in favor of saving space and selling his point, but in the end it touches on so many subjects that the overarching approach is what makes it manageable. This is a book that sets out to show the dichotomy of seventeenth century scientists who were devoted to both religion and scientific endeavors.

While many may be frustrated with th
Aug 21, 2015 J.S. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-science, vine
Science and religion are often at odds in today's highly polarized and contentious world, each sneeringly scornful and antagonistic toward the other. Yet that relationship was very different when some of the greatest leaps of scientific understanding occurred. Edward Dolnick gives us excellent and readable biographical profiles of the greats like Galileo and Kepler, Leibniz and Newton as well others who were instrumental in the birth of modern science. He says "Newton's intent in all his work wa ...more
Patrick Ross
Mar 05, 2015 Patrick Ross rated it really liked it
The Clockwork Universe is the most readable book you'll ever encounter that delves deeply into geometry and calculus. (You didn't tell me there would be math on this test!) But the fact is that you don't have to pay too much attention to his explanation of the mathematics used by Newton and others to calculate how the universe really works; you can if you choose simply enjoy the stories Dolnick tells of the great minds of the 16th and 17th Centuries who changed the way we think about our world.

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
Mar 08, 2012 Bill rated it really liked it

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
Dec 17, 2011 Shoshana rated it did not like it
This book, from the title onward, was a disaster. The only saving grace to this book is its witty tone and accessible writing style--which at points even tend to work against the author. The content is often false and misleading and accusatory towards 16th century science in ways it should not be.

The title really says it all--"The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton..." Well, there's the problem right there. Isaac Newton didn't believe in the Clockwork Universe. It's a horrible misconception promo
Kristi Thielen
Aug 03, 2013 Kristi Thielen rated it it was amazing
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
Scott Killen
May 10, 2011 Scott Killen rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oct 15, 2011 Tinav rated it really liked it
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
May 30, 2011 Monica rated it it was amazing
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
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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
More about Edward Dolnick...

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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.” 2 likes
“In the century of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, and Newton,” one historian wrote, “the most versatile genius of all was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.” 1 likes
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