Edward Dolnick’s “The Clockwork Universe” is an excellent way to learn about the invention of calculus which led to the discoveries that “exposed” the mysteries of the universe. I must profess that I am not a great math and science aficionado; however, Dolnick wrote an excellent history of the works of such luminaries like Sir Isaac Newton, the main protagonist of the book, as well as Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler and Leibniz. Although Newton and Galileo are quite familiar to the general public, the other scientific luminaries are not, and one of the strengths of Dolnick’s book is his introduction the important works of these lesser known luminaries.
Dolnick’s backdrop for his history is the struggle that many scientists had in using scientific investigation to explain the universe and specifically the orbit of the planets of our solar system. Dolnick expertly explains how scientist such as Galileo and Newton spent most of their lives trying to deduce God’s grand design of the universe, which they thought was hidden in the “new” science of higher mathematics such as geometry and calculus. This notion was so prevalent leading up to the “Age of Enlightenment.” In addition, Dolnick beautifully explains the “birth” of the Enlightenment when he writes, “In the year 1600, for the crime of asserting that the Earth was one of an infinite number of planets, a man named Giordano Bruno was burned alive…Almost exactly a century later, in 1705 the queen of England bestowed a knighthood on Isaac Newton…Sometime between those two events, at some point in the course of the 1600’s, the modern world was born” (Dolnick, 314).
I think one of the best aspects of Dolnick’s book is his very revealing biographical information regarding one of the greatest minds in history, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. While most of the general public is quite familiar with Newton, especially after the “DaVinci Code” has popularized him to the public, few know of Leibniz. Dolnick expertly introduces Leibniz as one of the great “Renaissance” men in history in such a way that deserves a wider knowledge of this genius to the general public. Leibniz was a lawyer, diplomat, one of the great rationalist philosophers, and as an “amateur” mathematician left an indelible mark on the “Enlightenment.” I know Leibniz through his philosophy and his incredible knowledge of Chinese philosophy in particular. He was the major European figure that introduced and explained Confucius philosophy to Europeans. In fact he found much in Confucianism to recommend to the Enlightenment movement since it provided a philosophy of virtue ethics without relying on God as its foundation. What I didn’t know about Leibniz, which Dolnick explains succinctly, is that Leibniz came to math as an amateur learning it at the age of 26 as a “hobby.” Leibniz wound up inventing calculus independently of Newton. In fact, Dolnick explains that it is Leibniz’s language and symbols of calculus that we use today and not Newton’s because his system was too cumbersome to be understood by most people. In addition, Leibniz invented the binary code system of 0’s and 1’s that is at the heart of all present day computer code used to write computer programs!
Finally, the other strength of Dolnick’s book is how he is able to explain, in plain language that the layman can understand, many of the calculus equations produced that were used to explain the orbits of the planets. In fact, Dolnick’s writing style throughout the book is one of its advantages that will make this book more interesting and accessible to the wider public.
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