Every now and then I really like a good science read. I don't read science all that often, but if I find a title I can understand, I enjoy the subject much more than I ever did in high school.*
I was able to understand most of Edward Dolnick's history of science title The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, so the book met my first criteria for science reading. Although the subtitle includes that bit about the Royal Society, this is much more a book about some of the luminaries who were part of that organization (Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, and eventually Isaac Newton) and those whose discoveries they built upon (Descartes, Johannes Kepler, Galileo).
For the first hundred pages, I really enjoyed the book. I understood it; the writing was quite vivid; the chapters were short; all things I typically enjoy in my nonfiction. But as the narrative wore on I started to feel that the chapters were a little too short and the writing a bit too choppy: I finished it, but in my opinion it never really coalesced into a cohesive narrative about the Royal Society, some of its most noteworthy members, or science in the seventeenth century as a whole.
But Dolnick does have a nice touch with setting the stage (his first chapters are all about plagues and fires sweeping across Europe in the 1660s): "Making matters harder still, London was not just built of wood but built in the most dangerous way possible. Rickety, slapdash buildings leaned against one another like drunks clutching each other for support. On and on they twisted, an endless labyrinth of shops, tenements, and taverns with barely a gap to slow the flames." (p. 31.)
He brings that same descriptive power to Newton's struggles with and eventual mastery of mathematics, planetary movements, the power of gravity, etc. And it's wild to realize how much some of the thinkers of this age accomplished, and how much they accomplished separately but concurrently. Newton and one of his main rivals, Gottfried Leibniz, evidently worked out calculus within years of each other, although Newton was too paranoid to publish his work as soon as he theorized it.
Huh. Imagine just "working out calculus." So yes, there are quite a few interesting tidbits like that in this book, but still...I finished it feeling a bit disappointed that it hadn't read a little smoother.
*Being a lazy student, I signed up for "General Physics," which was my school's version of "Physics for Dummies." I didn't want to be a scientist, I figured, why kill myself with regular physics? Our textbook even considered us too dumb for regular pronunciation guidelines; it said things like "joule (rhymes with tool)" and "torque (rhymes with fork)." Ha! I was so busy laughing at that textbook I never even learned what a joule really is.