The Clockwork Universe

Rating: 4/5

In The Clockwork Universe, author Edward Dolnick details the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton and his contemporaries during the 1600’s and 1700’s including gravity, the inner workings of our solar system, and more. Outside of the actual discoveries, I found the stories about their scientific methods (often brutal, frequently misguided), their beliefs (fervently in religion), and their best practices around sharing ideas (a new concept at the time) to be fascinating.

One such example of their line of thinking: Newton and his contemporaries believed that every new discover was, in fact, not new at all. The Greeks, Egyptians, Hebrews, and others had discovered them previously, but the discoveries were hidden in cryptic language from the unworthy. The great thinkers like Newton were simply rediscovering these ideas.

Another core concept, Newton was an obsessive thinker often thinking on a problem for days, weeks, and years with little to no social interaction until the problem was solved. This contrasts deeply to our current society where individuals move from one project to the next often leaving multiple piles of work unfinished. When asked how he had come up with the idea of gravitation, Newton replied “By thinking on it continually.”

One last interesting bit, until the Royal Society (a collective group of thinkers that performed experiments in front of one another and shared their discoveries), knowledge was not frequently shared between scientists. In fact, scientists often disguised their findings in code so they couldn’t be understood. The Royal Society was the first group to embody a new approach: “knowledge would advance more quickly if new findings were discussed openly and published for all to read.” (p. 198)