Books Magazine

The Royal Society and The Clockwork Universe #BriFri #BookReview

By Joyweesemoll @joyweesemoll

British Isles Friday logoWelcome to British Isles Friday! British Isles Friday is a weekly event for sharing all things British — reviews, photos, opinions, trip reports, guides, links, resources, personal stories, interviews, and research posts. Join us each Friday to link your British-themed content and to see what others have to share. The link list is at the bottom of this post.

Last week’s British Isles Friday round-up of posts included photos from trips, a British saint, and lists of books about or set in England. Don’t miss Jackie’s fun post about the oddly named pub The Hung Drawn and Quartered.

For my British Isles Friday post this week, I’m reviewing The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick.

Book: The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick
Genre: History of science
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: 2011
Pages: 378

Source: Library

The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick

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

Summary: The subtitle is misleading. This is a wonderfully readable and accessible book about the history of the scientific and mathematical discoveries that explained how the universe works. The history starts with ancient Greeks and mentions Einstein, but focuses most on Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton, telling the story of how we came to understand the motions of the planets and, ultimately, to see that the same mysterious force (gravity) governs motion both on earth and in the heavens.

Thoughts: With the subtitle “Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World,” I expected The Clockwork Universe to be a popular history of The Royal Society.

The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, the formal name of this grab-bag collection of geniuses, misfits, and eccentrics, was by most accounts the first official scientific organization in the world….

The men of the Royal Society were not the world’s first scientists. Titans like Descartes, Kepler, and Galileo, among many others, had done monumental work long before. But to a great extent those pioneering figures were lone geniuses. With the rise of the Royal Society–and allowing for the colossal exception of Isaac Newton–the story of early science would have more to do with collaboration than with solitary contemplation. p. 5

The Royal Society grew out of haphazard meetings, organized by Thomas Hobbes, to display and discuss experiments. Officially founded by Charles II in 1660, the Royal Society exists today and has been publishing its journal, Philosophical Transactions, for nearly 350 years.

This book, though, isn’t about the Royal Society except as a backdrop to Isaac Newton’s life and times. The subtitle of this book is just wrong. It’s not the book I wanted to read this year on the Royal Society. I learned more about the Royal Society from the novel Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson than I did from this history book.

However, The Clockwork Universe is the book I’ve wanted to read for decades on the history of math and physics. I contend that I could have learned science much better if I learned it as history. This is the book to start me on that path. I lost track of the number of times I said, “Now, I understand….” From the Pythagorean Theorem to Einstein’s Relativity, this book circles around Newton more than it lands on him. In the end, we do get a good grounding in planetary physics, calculus, and optics.

Appeal: The Clockwork Universe should be sub-titled, Learn Math and Science The Fun Way Through History. Someone else needs to write the book that I still want to read – a popular history of the Royal Society.

Reviews: I guessed that there wouldn’t be other reviews of The Clockwork Universe to link to, but I underestimated my fellow book bloggers! The LifetimeReader reviewed an ARC and judged The Clockwork Universe “a perfect blending of history, science, and religion–completely accessible for non-specialists and a thoroughly engrossing read for all.” Melissa of Reading Chemistry was also tricked by the subtitle, thinking this book would be more science and less history. The Citizen Reader, too, was expecting something different than this book delivered.

Challenges: This is my 3rd of 3 books for the British History Reading Challenge.

What books do you recommend to people who love books more than math to learn about science?

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