THE CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World
By Edward Dolnick, Harper, 378 pp., $27.99
ENGLAND IN THE 1600s--not a promising time for a revolution, at least not an intellectual one. Life was cheap, and the universe seemed capricious and senseless. The one-two punch of the plague in 1665 and the Great Fire in 1666 left London reeling. Daily life was scarcely better. The murder rate was five times higher than it is today, sanitation was nonexistent (Shakespeare's Globe Theatre could hold 2,000 patrons but had zero bathrooms), and doctors' treatments almost inevitably made patients' illnesses worse. Even the royal physicians, the best around, would inadvertently torture poor King Charles II to death in 1685. (In those days, the rich had the worst health care.)
Yet in 1660 that same King Charles granted a charter to form the Royal Society, the world's first scientific organization. And as Edward Dolnick's delightful book The Clockwork Universe reveals, the Society's "geniuses, misfits, and eccentrics" soon fomented a scientific revolution that made sense of the cosmos and lifted humanity out of those dark days. Dolnick argues that, above all, the communal nature of the Royal Society spurred its greatness. Rather than labor in isolation, its fellows inaugurated the modern scientific practices of openly debating and testing ideas.
And what ideas they had. At one moment, the men of the Royal Society seem fairly modem, transfusing blood between animals or using air pumps to create vacuums (defying the ancients, who insisted vacuums couldn't exist). The next moment they're grinding up unicorn horns to trap spiders, or blowing powdered human excrement into someone's eyes to cure glaucoma, or studying how witches use the fat of murdered babies to grease themselves up and slip through keyholes. These men professed rationalism, then applied their rationalism to spooks and angels and miracles. They believed that simple, elegant laws drove the universe and that God had planted secret clues about the Apocalypse in the Bible. Dolnick strikes a remarkable balance in portraying such ideas. We get to chuckle at plenty of batty theories, but we sympathize with Society members, too--we understand their motivations, and we get to see how they grew intellectually through debate and experimentation. Indeed, it was the willingness to test their ideas that separated Society members from the protoscientists that preceded...