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

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  4,294 Ratings  ·  475 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 11, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012, biography, history
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
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
Sep 19, 2016 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
Feb 23, 2011 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 23, 2012 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
Jan 15, 2012 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
Greg Tatum
Aug 20, 2013 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
Sep 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
A very interesting and well-written history of the early days of the modern scientific age, including great descriptions of the prevailing culture, attitudes, philosophies, and standards of living that accompanied the men (sorry, but they were all men) who ushered in the science and mathematics that govern our modern world. The story of how Isaac Newton discovered calculus and how he applied it to explain so many theretofore mysteries of our universe is one of the truly great stories in the hist ...more
Feb 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: physics
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
Jan 26, 2014 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
Mar 22, 2013 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
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
Jason Pettus
Feb 22, 2011 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
Lucas Miller
Dec 23, 2011 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
Mar 27, 2011 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.
Brendan Monroe
I'd definitely file this under "light reads" but it was entertaining nonetheless.

Of course, certain parts were more entertaining than others. I absorbed with pleasure the bits about the odd little quirks of certain members of the Royal Society, but the several chapters that dealt with Newton's invention of calculus were something of a snore.

The book is essentially about the various rivalries that existed between Isaac Newton and various other scientists, the main being Newton's German contempo
Emily (BellaGrace)
Mar 18, 2016 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
Feb 07, 2015 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.
Nathaniel Dean
Dec 05, 2016 rated it liked it
Not bad, but not great. A excellent insight into Newton and the time period in which he lived, but I found that I admired Newton less the more I learned about him. I know that this is the point but it also meant the text dragged a bit. Also because I am a math and science person, I found the chapters about infinity and limits to be a bit dragging even if they were necessary for people unfamiliar with calculus.
Nov 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Here we have a treatise on the "invention" of modern mathematics and, following closely behind, the modern scientific worldview. The book is a mix of Sir Isaac newton's personality and accomplishments. I always find the mathematical explanation of natural occurrences to be interesting and this book did not disappoint in that regard. For a laic explanation of what was happening in Europe during the late 1600s and early 1700s from a scientific progress standpoint, this book is an excellent introdu ...more
Oct 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was tough to rate, because some parts left me breathless with excitement (about calculus equations, of all things!) but some parts I found very dull (especially the bits about religion). Very interesting for the most part - I never knew math could be so dramatic. The fact that someone had to invent the concept of a graph absolutely blew my mind.
Tudor Ciocarlie
Jul 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
"Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light."
Patrick Ross
May 28, 2014 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.

Jul 11, 2014 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
Carissa Goble
Dec 29, 2012 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 15, 2015 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
Mar 08, 2012 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
Scott Killen
May 05, 2011 rated it liked it
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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.” 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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