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Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

by Edward Dolnick

Pub Date: Feb. 8th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-171951-6
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

A lively popular account of early science, culminating in Isaac Newton’s gravitational theory.

Dolnick (The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century, 2008, etc.) puts Newton’s achievement in the context of his times. England was just recovering from its civil war, dealing with the plague and the Fire of London, a short generation after Galileo nearly came to grief for claiming that the Earth moves. The author begins by showing the vast differences between Newton’s times and the modern era. The nascent Royal Society was experimenting on powdered unicorn horn and magical remedies alongside the first serious research with microscopes and vacuum pumps—as much for entertainment as for the advancement of science. Having set the scene, Dolnick circles back through history to reflect on several areas of sciences, in particular physics, astronomy and mathematics, in which Newton’s genius produced its most fruitful results. Math in particular was waiting for someone to discover a way to deal with motion and change, a task that required learning how to manipulate (or at least neutralize) infinities. The problem had frustrated everyone from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Two men found the solution almost simultaneously: Newton and his great rival, Gottfried Leibniz. Newton, however, invented calculus completely on his own, isolated at his country home during the plague years of 1666–67, and kept the discovery to himself. Leibniz discovered it nearly a decade later—and then, bizarrely, he too sat on the knowledge for several years before publishing his findings. Eventually, Edmund Halley persuaded Newton to publish his theories of gravity and its mathematical underpinnings, creating a paradigm of scientific work that would last for nearly 200 years. Dolnick effectively paints the characters of the two great antagonists, as well as the men around them, the politics and personalities and the atmosphere in which they worked. While the discovery of calculus is a key theme of the book, no math beyond simple geometry is needed to follow it.

Colorful, entertainingly written and nicely paced—a fine introductory text on Newton and the scientific revolution.