Tribune Print Share Text

The birth of the New Science

Created date

June 21st, 2011

In 1600, Catholic inquisitors burned Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno at the stake. His crime declaring there was an infinity of world systems beyond the nine planets. One hundred and five years later, the Queen of England knighted mathematician Isaac Newton. His achievement the same assertion that cost Bruno his life. Something had happened in the century that separated the two men, a shift from a closed earth-centered system to an open sun-centered system. It was one of the most important transformations in man s cosmic sensibilities, and the subject of bestselling author Edward Dolnick s latest book, The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2011).

Overlapping beliefs

With a brisk and lively style, Dolnick skillfully weaves history and science to tell the story of an era of war, pestilence, and discovery a period torn between long-held religious tenets and the burgeoning concept of logical and precise natural laws. Royal Society members like Joseph Glanvill championed contemporary scientific developments while remaining steadfast in their belief that witches and demons were real, that God was the ultimate mathematician and his will handed down in mathematical code. Even with the view that the planets and stars moved in a regular and predictable motion like a vast clock, it was nonetheless God s clockwork mechanism. Early in the 17th century, when the church still wielded impressive control over daily life in Europe, maintaining this balance between religion and science was a lifesaver. Few of the most talented innovators allowed their work to stray toward atheism, lest they meet Bruno s end at the inquisitors stake.

Great splatch of London dirt

Experimentation and far-reaching thought continued, however, and yielded important creations that enabled man to explore new worlds right here on earth. Robert Hooke s microscope revealed details previously invisible the hairs on a common flea, the rough and pitted surface of a seemingly smooth razor s edge, and the irregular circumference of a printed dot, which Hooke likened to a great splatch of London dirt. But the book is not all science. Dolnick also beautifully recreates life in 17th century London, the furnace in which the Royal Society s members forged their brilliant ideas. He recounts the plague of 1665, a blight that appeared to be without cause or cure, and a year later, the great London fire that raged for four days and left 100,000 people homeless. There s no wonder that many were unable to loosen their grasp from religious ideals when so much in life hinged on chance. Herein rests the value of Dolnick s work, for it takes a complex subject, a great fusion of the old and new, and makes it clear to the lay reader. '