I had the pleasure of international air travel this past week, so among other things that meant lots of time for reading. The selection for this past trip was “A Clockwork Universe” by Edward Dolnick. The book includes a number of vert interesting anecdotes, which all add up to a number of different points. The book is organized into many, short chapters (53 in 320 pages) which generally hang together. The opening is a description of the transition from the “middle ages” to the “renaissance” (I have to recall what Dan Carlin always says about the naming of historical epochs: the people living them didn’t know that they were in the renaissance). It was a strange time with a simultaneous embrace of what modern minds see as an extreme religious belief and the emerging scientific approach to reasoning. The middle section sets up the ideas the laid the foundation for Newton and Leibniz to invent calculus from great thinkers like Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. The final section focuses on the invention of calculus itself and the feud the erupted after its somewhat simultaneous and independent invention by both Newton and Leibniz.
Overall the book was definitely worth the read. It was an interesting case of synchronicity itself that I decided to read Clockwork Universe right after I had just finished a book for work called “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, which is all about using the scientific method as a way to introduce lean and agile methods to general business. CU gave me a peek into the modern fathers of that method which draws attention to how revolutionary it was at the time despite the fact that its taken for granted today. I do wish that there was a bit more about the Royal Society in the book. I have always been interested in its foundation, accomplishments and impact on how we think today. But unfortunately its just a bit player in the overall story.
The most interesting aspect of the book is that different readers can take different things from it. Dolnick does not try to push one particular conclusion or even story line. You could walk away from CU with a much better understanding of how calculus came to be, an appreciation of the just how different the way that Newton and Leibniz thought about things was in both relation to previous thought and how we think today, or knowledge of how the concepts of time, change, infinity and gravity are all related to one another.
The big take away for me was some new ideas about the relation between reality, mental models and concepts of the divine. The trivium method taught me that we can use grammar to process reality into our minds, logic to construct a model of what happens in reality then rhetoric to make claims about what will happen. Newton and Leibniz applied this process to create models of how the world worked specifically having to do with change and time. To do that they had to grapple with the slightly less tangible concepts of infinity and even God. Dolnick argues. successfully in my view that this new model, Calculus, was the foundation for the next 400+ years of scientific discovery. What’s not mentioned is the idea that this model can still get better. Just as Copernicus, and later Kepler, had some things right about the place and motion of the planets and the Sun, they were also missing a few things that Newton made right.
They both certainly made a huge leap forward in knowing the mind of God / understanding how and why things work they way they do (depending on your theology or lack there of), but to suppose that their model is perfect would be a heresy / bold claim (again theology dependent) that they would shy away from. The next advances will answer the questions that their materialistic model leaves out. How can we extend our senses through instruments to take in even more of how the universe works and then build models that can make accurate predictions. It is this process of model refinement that is what can best be described as becoming holy – at least in a mathematical sense.
To make those next leaps we would do wise to keep the words of a thinker that Newton and Leibniz relied heavily on, Galileo:
I say that the testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly. If reasoning were like hauling I should agree that several reasoners would be worth more than one, just as several horses can haul more sacks of grain than one can. But reasoning is like racing and not like hauling, and a single Barbary steed can outrun a hundred dray horses.
Up next on the reading pile: another “lean” book for work, this time focused on Lean User Experience and then (or maybe simultaneously) “The Scholar Warrior”, a book on Taoism.