Science Book a Day Interviews Edward Dolnick


Special thanks to Edward Dolnick for answering 6 questions about his recently featured book – The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

I grew up in a small town outside Boston, called Marblehead, and spent a not-so-productive childhood dreaming, in more or less equal proportions, about a career as a professional basketball player and as a sailor on a whaling ship. Alas, it was not to be. I ended up a journalist and eventually became the chief science writer at the Boston Globe. From newspapers it was on to magazines and eventually to books. The magazines ranged from journals that died before they ever saw a news-stand to such perennials as The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine. The stories ranged just as broadly. I wrote a cover story for The Atlanticon the science of dreams and how Freud had it all wrong, and I wrote the first story on “the French paradox,” about how it is that the French gulp down croissants and paté but manage somehow to have only half the rate of heart disease that Americans do. For about a decade now, I’ve concentrated almost exclusively on books. The first was on psychology—Madness on the Couch, it was called, and it looked (critically) at Freud’s legacy. Next came Down the Great Unknown, the true story of one of the epic adventures in American history. A one-armed ex-soldier named John Wesley Powell led a band of nine novices down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, in rowboats. None of the men had ever seen a rapid. – From Edward’s Homepage

Edward’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for The Clockwork Universe?

Two things — 1, For years I’ve been fascinated with the notion that a handful of geniuses, with hardly any tools except brainpower, closed their eyes and thought hard and figured out how the world works.

2, When I read books about modern breakthroughs, like relativity or astrophysics, I’m always frustrated by the handwaving: “picture the universe like a balloon with dots painted on it.” I wanted to explore an intellectual revolution without gliding by the tricky parts. I decided to take on a breakthrough from the past — gravitation and calculus — in the hope that I could explain it honestly and deeply.

#2 – Your book was broken up over a number of small chapters. What was your thinking about writing the book in this way?

Whenever I read a book — even a book I really like — I get a little charge from reaching the end of a chapter. It’s a tiny milestone. So there’s that. More important, this is a book that’s meant to be fun even though it’s about hard topics — infinity and the universe and code-breaking — and I wanted readers to enjoy themselves, not feel they were slogging their way along.

#3 – Your book culminates in the feud between Newton and Leibniz. You have worked through a significant amount of history at this point. Was it important to go through all this history to really give the context of this feud?

What I love about Newton and Leibniz is that they were two of the greatest geniuses who ever lived and they carried on like a pair of professional wrestlers knocking each other over the head with wooden chairs.

But ego and rivalry were only part of the story. The two clashed so fiercely because they looked at the world in completely different ways. To understand what that was about, and why it was so important to them, we need to dive into history. And the world at the time was violent and filthy and dangerous, which makes it a fun dive — terrible for our heroes but great for us.

#4 – I was staggered by the number of stories that you had found that I had previously never heard of. How did you go about the research for this book? Where you surprised by some of the stories you came across?

The way to research a book like this is to plunge into the past. The more voices and contemporary accounts you can find, the better — letters, diaries, memoirs. You need to understand the science, but it’s just as important to get to the point where you can hear your characters snarling and joking and smell the reeking streets and grimy bodies. Lots of the stories took me by surprise. One big theme of the book was that the great figures from the past were not just like us except in silly wigs. William Harvey did dissect a witch’s toad, to see if it had special demonic powers. Descartes did believe that a murdered body would gush blood if the murderer happened near, thus identifying the culprit.

#5 – What has the reaction to your book been?

The response has been good. I’ve been especially pleased to hear from readers who wrote that they found themselves intrigued by subjects that had turned them off in school. Lots of people told me that they felt smart, even though they were reading about topics that had always made them feel stupid.

#6 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

I have a book coming out in August that has nothing to do with science. It’s about the California gold rush. I’m obsessed with what it was like to see the world change. In 1849, for the first time ever, ordinary people believed they had a chance to transform their lives! That was brand-new.

I’m also working on a book that’s a sort of sequel to The Clockwork Universe. The great titans of science in the early days felt pretty pleased with themselves after they figured out how the heavens operate. Bursting with pride and eagerness, they raced off to explore the secrets of life. But it turned out that rocks and planets were a lot easier to understand than people and other animals. Especially brand-new life. How does a bit of goo transform itself in a living, breathing critter, with eyes and a heart and a brain, and everything just where it should be?

It’s a great, stumbling -in-the-dark yarn.

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