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Forward momentum

The Sensorium of God by Stuart Clark

Pippa Goldschmidt 22 April 2012

Further illumination: details from the cover

No matter how much we formalise the rules and outputs, doing science is still, and should remain, a complex and perhaps mysterious process

In the second in a trilogy of novels (Polygon, 2012), author Stuart Clark explores the birth of modern astronomy from Copernicus to Einstein. The first instalment, The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth (see the LabLit review here), told the tale of Kepler and Galileo’s attempt to convince the all-powerful religious authorities that the vision of an Earth-centred universe as set out in the Bible was not backed up by observations of the planets.

The Sensorium of God moves the story to England in the late seventeenth century, in which members of the recently formed Royal Society – Newton, Halley and Hooke – were all attempting to understand why the planets orbit the Sun. Both Newton and Hooke claimed to have cracked the problem of understanding Kepler’s laws of planetary motion by postulating that this motion was caused by a force emanating from the Sun. Only Newton could actually prove this, as it required his invention of calculus, and the book charts the lengthy story of how Halley persuaded Newton to document this proof.

We know Newton as the person who started a still-unfinished project in science, namely to unify different forces and observed phenomena into one grand scheme. It was Newton who explained that what propelled the planets around the Sun was the same force that moved objects near the surface of the Earth. Indeed, it was Newton who came up with the concept of forces acting through space on particles and masses.

As with Kepler and Galileo, the religious authorities had to be mollified. The most damaging religious criticism of Newton’s work was the apparently unarguable deduction that if the universe can be solely driven by materialistic forces, then there is no need for God. Newton was only too aware of this and tried to put God back in the driving seat by describing the whole Universe as God’s ‘sensorium’ or sensory organ. In other words, the Universe was the physical manifestation of God.

The book is divided into three parts named respectively ‘Action’, ‘Distance’ and ‘Force’, which underlines the most difficult and controversial aspect of Newton’s theory of gravity, the fact that it relies on instantaneous action at a distance. How exactly does one massive body influence another through the vacuum of space? Several people suggested different mechanisms, and Newton himself was very conscious of the problem. The book shows well the general unease caused by this idea of ‘action at a distance’; for example Newton’s enemy (actually one of his many enemies) Leibniz criticised the ‘occult’ theory of gravity. But Newton’s ideas persisted because they worked so brilliantly in practice. It was not until the twentieth century and Einstein’s work on the unification of space and time that the problem of gravity was solved.

But the point of this book is not only to explain how Newton, a famously difficult and unlikeable character, was persuaded by Halley to publish his theory of gravity, but also more ambitiously and more controversially, to explain the impact of Newton’s religious beliefs upon his scientific work. This has been explored in other books such as Michael White’s The Last Sorcerer and here, Clark draws a similar conclusion, that Newton’s deeply held and unorthodox beliefs were a direct influence on the way he viewed the Universe. The concept of force can be traced back to his alchemical speculation on the interaction between matter and light. The book is very persuasive in its view of Newton as a man whose beliefs and practices in alchemy cannot be disentangled from his scientific discoveries. This makes for some uncomfortable reading; Clark very effectively challenges the more conventional view of Newton wasting his brilliance on misguided alchemy. In The Sensorium of God, the detailed descriptions of Newton carrying out bizarre experiments which are directed by arbitrary – and to our eyes, unscientific – reasoning, seem almost impossible to square with the man who invented calculus and pretty much invented the modern scientific method of testing hypotheses via experimentation.

In some ways this novel is even more ambitious than Clark’s first because it moves between the points of view of Newton, Halley and Hooke, and illustrates each of their very different characters. Even nowadays, Hooke is still an underrated scientist (maybe thanks to the legacy of Newton’s malice against him) and Halley was certainly a brilliant astronomer, but it’s Newton who dominates the story with the contrast between his extraordinary scientific achievements and his odd and reclusive personality.

The value of this book, and perhaps the wider value of using fiction to investigate and illustrate these events, lies in showing us just how unstraightforward scientific discoveries actually are. We think we can trace a logical argument between the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, but Clark shows us that the way that the science was carried out was not straightforward, and the boundary between what we now perceive of as science and non-science is not obvious. Of course, the clear but unspoken implication of this tale is that no matter how much we formalise the rules and outputs, doing science is still, and should remain, a complex and perhaps mysterious process. We forget about Newton’s alchemical past at our peril.