The Clockwork Universe

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Dolnick, Edward. The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World. New York City: Harper, 2001.[1] Available on Kindle and as an audiobook read by Alan Sklar;[2] we have used the audiobook.

From Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

For this narrative of the seventeenth century’s scientific revolution, Dolnick embeds the mathematical discoveries of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Leibniz in the prevailing outlook of their time. God was presumed integral to the universe, so discerning how it worked was a quest as theological as it was intellectual. By directing readers to the deistic drive in their famous achievements, Dolnick accents what otherwise strikes moderns as strange, such as Newton’s obsession with alchemy and biblical hermeneutics. Those pursuits held codes to God’s mind, as did motion and, especially, planetary motion, and Dolnick’s substance follows the greats’ progress in code-breaking, depicting Kepler’s mathematical thought process in devising his laws, Galileo’s in breaking out the vectors of falling objects, Newton’s and Leibniz’s in inventing calculus, and Newton’s in formulating his laws of gravitation. Including apt biographical detail, Dolnick humanizes the group, socializes them by means of their connections to such coevals as the members of the nascent Royal Society, and captures their mental coexistence in mysticism and rationality.[3]

See elegantly brief Wikipedia entry, "Clockwork universe" for the basic idea; as of May 2023, here.[4]

For some striking quotes from Dolnick, as of May 2023: here.[5]

Possibly the most relevant quotation is from Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), which (since Erlich used the audiobook) we take, with thanks, from Michael Fowler of the University of Virginia Physics Department, linked below, May 2023, who himself uses Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers (1989): "My aim is to show that the heavenly machine is not a kind of divine, live being, but a kind of clockwork, insofar as nearly all the manifold motions are caused by a most simple, magnetic, and material force, just as all motions of the clock are caused by a simple weight. And I also show how these physical causes are to be given numerical and geometrical expression."[6] See also, "The Antikythera Mechanism and the Mechanical Universe," as of May 2023, here.[7]

Note, though, as Gilbert Tayler notes, that Dolnick stresses that the 17th-c. founders of modern Western science ordinarily believed — Isaac Newton to an extreme degree — that in decoding the universe they were coming to better understand the (mathematical) mind of God, and serve God.

Important for background: see in this wiki Spinoza on mechanism, and the general Mechanism, Vitalism debate.


Recommended by Mark Fulk, whom we thank. RDE, MF, finishing, 19May23