Sunday, February 27, 2011

Edward Dolnick's "The Clockwork Universe"

Edward Dolnick's books include The Forger's Spell, the New York Times bestselling account of the greatest art hoax of the 20th century, and The Rescue Artist, winner of the Edgar Award in 2006 for best non-fiction.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, and reported the following:
In the year 1600, an Italian philosopher and mystic named Giordano Bruno declared that the Earth was one of infinitely many planets. The Inquisition threw him in jail, then dragged him from his cell, paraded him through the streets, tied him to a stake, and set him on fire. To make sure that he didn’t manage to utter any final heresies, his captors drove a metal stake through his tongue.

Almost exactly a century later, in 1705, the Queen of England bestowed a knighthood on Isaac Newton. Sir Isaac had been born a farm boy; his father couldn’t sign his name, and his mother was scarcely more learned. When Newton died two decades later, dukes and earls carried his casket. Among the achievements that won Newton universal fame was this – he had convinced the world of the doctrine that had cost Bruno his life.

Sometime between those two events, at some impossible-to-pin-down point in the 1600s, the modern world was born. The Clockwork Universe is about that astonishing transformation. On page 99 we read about the bafflement and shock that the new scientific doctrines provoked. If Earth was only one planet among a multitude, were the other planets inhabited, too? By what sort of creatures? Did they have their own Adam and Eve?

One of my goals is to convey how strange the 1600s look to modern eyes. That strangeness – the towering piles of human waste blocking the streets, the criminals’ heads tacked up on stakes as a warning to others, the terror inspired by wave after wave of bubonic plague – is too often brushed aside. Just as important, most histories talk about Newton and Galileo and other geniuses of past centuries in what I feel is a deeply misleading way. These titans are often portrayed essentially as time-travelers – men of modern ideas who happened to live in the past. They were just like us, except they wore funny wigs.

They were not just like us.

Newton and all the other early scientists lived precariously between two worlds, the medieval one they had grown up in and a new one they had only glimpsed. These were brilliant, ambitious, confused, conflicted men. They believed in angels and alchemy and the devil, and they believed that the universe followed precise, mathematical laws.
Learn more about the book and author at Edward Dolnick's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Forger's Spell.

--Marshal Zeringue