Review: The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick

There once was a time when everyone believed that the earth was the centre of the universe. The heavens were a blue arch that spun overhead, displaying its arrays of stars and the sun on an endlessly revolving canvas. The concepts in the Bible were literally true; heaven was above in the sky, the earth was the mid-point and hell was below everyone’s feet, buried deep in the ground at the very heart of everything in existence.

Then, a few very special men came along and made their contributions to humanity’s store of knowledge and changed everything. Absolutely everything that everyone knew about the world, the universe and God was turned on its head. The earth was not the centre of the universe. It revolved around the sun, which in turn orbited on the outskirts of the galactic cluster, which in turn spun in a far-flung corner of a group of galaxies too numerous to count. All of a sudden, Man was not the be all and end all of creation. He was relegated to a tiny, insignificant corner of a vast ocean of nothing; cast aside and eternally adrift.

Where was God? If the universe was a perfect system which functioned like clockwork without the constant intervention of a higher power, was there any need for an all-powerful deity to watch over everyone? Could humanity’s expanded view continue to encompass both the sight of eternity and God?

The Clockwork Universe is chiefly the story of two of the greatest men that physics has ever known: Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz. They independently described calculus and raced each other to provide a theory of relativity. Most readers will doubtless know Einstein’s theory of special relativity which includes the famous formula E = MC2, and describes time and matter as it approaches the speed of light. This theory was built on Newton and Leibnitz’s work on the theory of general relativity, which includes Newton’s well known laws of motion (an object in motion will stay in motion (or remain stationary) unless acted upon by an external force, the change in momentum of an object is proportional to the force applied to the object, and acts in the direction from which the force was applied and finally, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction)as well as the theory of gravity, which explains why planets orbit the sun and aren’t flung off in to outer space.

As stated in one of Newton’s most memorable quotes, however, both of these great men stood on the shoulders of giants in order to achieve the results that changed the world. Many mathematicians, philosophers and geometers laid groundwork (some of which was incorrect), including Halley, Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, and Aristotle. The Clockwork Universe also provides a brief history of the philosophies and theories of these men, the end result being that nearly half the book is dedicated to times previous to the race to find the general theory of relativity. It is interesting to observe the social, religious and scientific beliefs and the progression of the understanding of the universe.

In ancient Greek times, the preference was for elegant, simple and perfect explanations. Everything in the heavens could be explained using perfect shapes; squares, equilateral triangles and circles. Anything that did not fall within the scope of this perfect and heavenly geometry was beneath the notice of Aristotle and his contemporaries. The motion of the heavens was circular and therefore perfect. Motion, trajectories and other such earthly phenomena – things that could be described only through the use of parabolas and similar curves – was inelegant and vulgar.

This method of thinking prevailed for hundreds of years, until experiments by Leibnitz and Newton demonstrated that the orbits of planetary bodies are in fact elliptical. Many scientists attempted to apply perfect shapes to the orbits of planets, and they all failed. Even once the proof was available, many refused to believe it; like Galileo and his ostracism because of his heliocentric theories (Galileo was the first to postulate that the earth orbited around the sun rather than the sun around the earth), both Leibnitz and Newton suffered criticisms for their researches.

Despite being so similar in thought and method, or perhaps because of it, Newton and Leibnitz were not friends, but rivals. They fought bitterly to the very end of their days, despite maintaining an almost comical level of civility and politeness to each other in public.

The Clockwork Universe is very well written. Despite frequent delving in to scientific theorems and mathematical formulae, it is eminently readable and understandable. Dolnick has created a book that is not only interesting and engaging – through the chronicles of the rivalries of two of the greatest scientific minds to ever exist – but also educational on several fronts. There are biographical details of many scientists’ lives, social and political backgrounds of the times they lived in, explorations of their ideas and theories and of course a thorough look at general relativity and the laws of motion and gravity.

On the face of it, the content is quite dry and heavy. The Clockwork Universe is easy to breeze through, though. It is written in a simple and light hearted way, though it is never condescending to the audience at the same time.  The Clockwork Universe is an entertaining and informative book, and is highly recommended for just about anyone.

  • Genre: Science-History
  • Demographic: Children and up
  • Rating Out of Five: 5
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Find At: The Book Depository
  • Published: February 2011

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