Seventeenth-century Europe is characterized by its contradictions. It was a century of great scientists, philosophers and artists, the likes of Galileo, Descartes, Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Bach. But people rarely bathed, garbage and human waste filled city streets, and the rodents and pests that thrived on this filth spread a deadly disease known as the Plague. Above all, Europeans of this era believed that all earthly occurrences were the result of divine intervention.

No human being better typified this conflicted period than Isaac Newton, a key figure in Edward Dolnick’s The Clockwork Universe. Newton is best known for his theories on gravity and the laws of motion, and he shares credit for the development of calculus. But he also spent much of his time tinkering with alchemy, and he actually wrote more about religion than science, believing that, in his own words, “God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Chronicling the lives of Newton and his fellow scientists who established Britain’s Royal Society, Dolnick deftly illustrates how Western civilization slowly lurched forward from the Dark Ages to the Age of Enlightenment. Newton and his Royal Society comrades were the bridge between the two periods, Dolnick writes. From a 21st-century viewpoint, it would appear that their scientific and mathematical discoveries would refute their belief in divine intervention. Peering through a telescope, German astronomer Johannes Kepler developed principles that confirmed Copernicus’ theory that the Earth orbits the sun. Squinting through a microscope, Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered “tiny animals” which would later become known as microorganisms. Yet rather than using these and other scientific discoveries to dispute the all-controlling power of God, the members of the Royal Society cited them as evidence that the world operated as God’s perfectly regulated clock.

The Clockwork Universe will engage readers interested in history, science, mathematics or religion. Offering fascinating insights into this calamitous era filled with fear and wonderment, and the growing tension between religion and science, Dolnick is a smart, snappy writer who describes complex topics in an educating and entertaining fashion. Indeed, the writing moves the reader along quickly and easily—just like clockwork.

 

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