Friday, 17 February 2012

The Sensorium Of God

This is the second book in Stuart Clark's trilogy The Sky's Dark Labyrinth, and as a fan of the first book it would be rude not to delve into the second.  Set around the turn of the 17th Century this (technically fictional) account of Newton's theory of gravity lends some much needed background to the story of the apple. 

As with his account of Galileo and Kepler this reads as a historical novel, although it's pretty tricky to distinguish fact from fiction - Clark is good enough to point out where he's embellished and dramatised events and you're left with the feeling that you're reading a pretty faithful account of events; if the protagonists were given the right of reply I think they'd be firmly in nitpicking territory.

The characterisation is wonderful - Clark's lucky enough to have picked some of the greatest characters in scientific history, from the dour and grumpy Newton to the exuberant and childishly enthusiastic Edmond Halley.  The author's tweets as he was writing it suggested he was having great fun with them and it certainly shines through.  

But enough of the standard book review stuff, it's fun and well written, that's all you need to know.  On to the science!

This book really does cover the emergence of modern science as we understand it.  Much of the action is centered around the fledgling Royal Society, where political infighting and closely guarded secrecy abound.  Kepler's laws of planetary motion were well understood at this point, but the mechanism was still up for grabs.  The idea of a invisible force acting through space was understandably controversial - after all, there was no testable way to differentiate that from a big invisible piece of string, and without any burden of proof theories abounded.  Cue Newton, who postulated that the force bringing an apple to the ground (a very familiar and Earthbound force) was the same that held the moon in orbit and could explain the origin of Kepler's laws.

The charming thing about Sensorium Of God is that Clark doesn't simply trot out the "obvious" theories that eventually became part of high school science.  He explores the competing theories, the ones which turned out to be wrong, and he does so with his head firmly planted in the available knowledge of the time.  Being wrong is the basis of physics, the whole discipline is built around trying to disprove theories, and there's a great deal of charm and insight to be found in the destruction testing of an idea.  The screening theory crops up for example, an analogy ship's captains were well aware of at the time, and a seductive theory because of its elegance and ease of understanding.  This turned out to be wrong, although a variation would later crop up in mid-20th Century quantum theory.  Experiments are carried out to test the inverse square law proposed by Newton and others, but fail simply because they didn't have the resolution, creating red herrings.  Mathematical models are proposed, tested, and fought over, books are written and then suppressed, then published, then fought over again.  

This is in many ways the story of the birth of the modern scientific method and draws many modern day analogies, both good and bad.  They even have funding problems, and you don't get much more "contemporary science" than that.

Stuart Clark
Polygon Books
ISBN: 9781846971877