Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Clockwork Universe, by Edward Dolnick

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick explores a time of monumental change in Western culture.  Dolnick argues that major advances in mathematics and science, spurred on by religious faith, led to a revolution in the way people understood the world.  Sceintists such as Galileo, Leibniz, Newton, and Copernicus did no less than "fling open the gates to the modern world," helping transform the Dark Ages into the Age of Enlightenment.

In the 1650s and 1660s, people in England believed their world was in crisis--a chaos that many were sure would end in Apocalypse.  As the year 1666 with its ominous last three digits drew near, fears of the Apocalypse reached a fever pitch.  During the summer and fall of 1665, the Great Plague tore through the country, decimating countryside and city alike.  Cries of "Bring out your dead!" were not some Monty Python skit.  One hundred thousand people died in London alone--20% of the city's population.  Many people, consumed with the belief that God was punishing them, saw the plague as the beginning of the end.

When the plague began to abate, it was immediately followed by the Great Fire of London, starting near London Bridge and destroying wide swaths as the flames burned for days.  Seeing the devestation around them, many people wondered why God was so full of wrath against them.  What had they done?

Dolnick portrays the fear that the world was ending as "exactly backward."  As he says, "The 1660s did not mark the end of time but the beginning of the modern age."  Rather than a world of chaos, Isaac Newton and other scientists of his day saw mathematical perfection.  They
believed that God had created an orderly world--one as intricate and well-tuned as a clock.  As Newton said, “God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”  These early scientists believed that they could decode the workings of divinity.  With the tools of intellectual inquiry, they "set out to read God's mind."

The Clockwork Universe recounts their explorations, discoveries, and teachings in detail.  Instead of trusting in the supernatural, these scientists discovered a world that seemed to be decipherable, to follow an elaborate code and extensive laws that humans could comprehend through dedicated study.  Although their intention was to make  "men...fall to their knees in awe" as Dolnick writes, the developing field of science sometimes had the opposite effect of encouraging people to question the relevance of God.  "Newton wanted above all else to portray God as a participant in the world, not a spectator," summarizes the author.  "But Newton's universe seemed to run by itself."  In other words, "Newton had built a universe that had no place within it for God.

I am reminded of Richard Dawkins's 1996 The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.   Dawkins tells the tale of 18th-century theologian William Paley who argued that the universe, like a watch in its complexity, must have had a watchmaker to design it.  It seemed impossible to him to imagine that life was merely an accident.  Dawkins doesn't imagine life as an accident, either, although he does not believe in a conscious or personal watchmaker or divinity.  He explains how even great complexity develops naturally from the process of evolution.  What Paley saw in the watch and what Newton had earlier seen in the clock was an idea that the world made sense--that it was not a world which revolved due to conditional love or vengeance.  Although both believed that orderly world was created by God, their thinking also led to something they did not anticipate: the beginnings of irreligious science.

The Clockwork Universe is a perfect blending of history, science, and religion--completely accessible for non-specialists and a thoroughly engrossing read for all.  Whether you are an atheist or have deep religious faith, you will find this book non-controversial since Dolnick is laying out the conflict and its historical context rather than writing a polemic.

Thank very much to Harper Books for providing me a review copy of this fascinating book.


  1. "Dolnick is laying out the conflict and its historical context rather than writing a polemic."

    That is good to know. When you mentioned Dawkins I admit I hesitated if I should read this book. You see, I am not religious, but I don't really like those who turn atheism into another belief system. Anyway, this sounds like a book I would find interesting. Thank you for making me aware of it.

  2. I understand your point about Dawkins. Some of his books are far more polemic than others. He is both a scientist and a philosopher of atheism--and Watchmaker falls somewhere in between.

    Hope you give Dolnick a try. I'd love to hear what you think.

  3. Thanks for this review. Love your summary. I quoted it in my review and linked to yours.


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