The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part I. Chaos

Chapter 1. London, 1660

A stranger to the city who happened to see the parade of eager, chattering men disappearing into Thomas Gresham’s mansion might have found himself at a loss. Who were these gentlemen in their powdered wigs, knee breeches, and linen cravats? It was too early in the day for a concert or a party, and this was hardly the setting for a bull-baiting or a prizefight.

With its shouting coachmen, reeking dunghills, and grit-choked air, London assaulted every sense, but these mysterious men seemed not to notice. Locals, then, for the giant metropolis left newcomers reeling. The men at Gresham’s looked a bit like a theater crowd—and with the Puritans out of power and Oliver Cromwell’s head on a pole in front of Westminster Hall, theaters had opened their doors again. But in that case where were the women? Perhaps the imposing building on the fashionable street concealed a gentlemen’s gambling club? A high-class brothel?

Even a peek through a coal-grimed window might not have helped much. Amid the bustle, one man seemed to be spilling powder onto the tabletop and arranging it into a pattern. The man standing next to him held something between his fingers, small and dark and twitching.

The world would eventually learn the identity of these mysterious men. They called themselves natural philosophers, and they had banded together to sort out the workings of everything from pigeons to planets. They shared little but curiosity. At the center of the group stood tall, skeletally thin Robert Boyle, an aristocrat whose father was one of Britain’s richest men. Boyle maintained three splendid private laboratories, one at each of his homes. Mild-mannered and unworldly, Boyle spent his days contemplating the mysteries of nature, the glories of God, and home remedies for an endless list of real and imaginary ills.

If Boyle was around, Robert Hooke was sure to be nearby. Hooke was hunched and fidgety—“low of stature and always very pale”—but he was tireless and brilliant, and he could build anything. For the past five years he had worked as Boyle’s assistant, cobbling together equipment and designing experiments. Hooke was as bad-tempered and sharp-tongued as Boyle was genial. To propose an idea was to hear that Hooke had thought of it first; to challenge his claim was to make a lifelong enemy. But few questioned the magic in his hands. Hooke’s latest coup was a glass vessel that could be pumped empty of air. What would happen if you put a candle inside? a mouse? a man?

The small, birdlike man was Hooke’s closest friend, the ludicrously versatile Christopher Wren. Ideas tumbled from him like coins from a conjuror’s fingertips. Posterity would know Wren as the most celebrated architect in English history, but he was renowned as an astronomer and a mathematician before he sketched his first building. Everything came easily to this charmed and charming creature. Early on an admirer proclaimed Wren a “miracle of youth,” and he would live to ninety-one and scarcely pause for breath along the way. Wren built telescopes, microscopes, and barometers; he tinkered with designs forsubmarines; he built a transparent beehive (to see what the bees were up to) and a writing gizmo for making copies, with two pens connected by a wooden arm; he built St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, the formal name of this grab-bag collection of geniuses, misfits, and eccentrics, was by most accounts the first official scientific organization in the world. In these early days almost any scientific question one might ask inspired blank stares or passionate debate—Why does fire burn? How do mountains rise? Why do rocks fall?

The men of the Royal Society were not the world’s first scientists. Titans like Descartes, Kepler, and Galileo, among many others, had done monumental work long before. But to a great extent those pioneering figures had been lone geniuses. With the rise of the Royal Society—and allowing for the colossal exception of Isaac Newton—the story of early science would have more to do with collaboration than with solitary contemplation.

Newton did not attend the Society’s earliest meetings, though he was destined one day to serve as its president (he would rule like a dictator). In 1660 he was only seventeen, an unhappy young man languishing on his mother’s farm. Soon he would head off to begin his undergraduate career, at Cambridge, but even there he would draw scarcely any notice. In time he would become the first scientific celebrity, the Einstein of his day.

No one would ever know what to make of him. One of history’s strangest figures, Newton was “the most fearful, cautious, and suspicious Temper that I ever knew,” in the judgment of one contemporary. He would spend his life in secrecy and solitude and die, at eighty-four, a virgin. High-strung to the point of paranoia, he teetered always on the brink of madness. At least once he would fall over the brink.

In temperament Newton had little enough in common with the other men of the Royal Society. But all the early scientists shared a mental landscape. They all 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.

In time they would fling open the gates to the modern world.