Sunday, September 27, 2009


I remember when Saul-Paul Sirag in his digs in Berkeley used to reminisce about the 17th century when Science Was Illegal. Well, maybe not quite illegal but highly suspicious and exciting--a bright new heresy shining in the midst of murky church superstitions. Universities then were mostly training grounds for clergymen. The embryonic science was being created by amateurs in coffee shops. And the hot new mind-altering drug was caffeine.

At Bruce Damer's insistence (Bruce is a Boulder Creek polyscientist and proprietor of the Digibarn who dresses like a 17th century courtier and drives a sea-green Element) I have begun to read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle which deals with just this part of science history in novel form.

At the core of Neal's novel is the founding of the Royal Society of London and the intellectual feud between Newton and Leibnitz. The book is also a splendid travel guide to the great cities of London, Paris and Amsterdam and explodes with finely researched details of the sights, sounds and smells which informed the daily lives of the high and the lowly of those bygone days.

Instead of straight-ahead bios of Newton and Leibnitz, Stephenson uses the Rosenkranz and Guildenstern plot device of making the lives of minor characters his central focus and looking at the more famous scientists through the eyes of these bit players.

One of Stephenson's main characters is the fictional Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan who rises to become secretary of the Royal Society but in the beginning he is Newton's roommate at Trinity. What might it be like to be Isaac Newton's college roommate? Stephenson shows us in vivid detail.

Via Waterhouse we meet all the famous--and quite eccentric--early scientists such as Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Christian Huygens, Leibnitz, Christopher Wren. In a way they are all Mad Scientists--non-fictional Doctor Manhattans who once really walked the Earth--strongly obsessed personalities all mixed up in a flavorful stew of theology, alchemy, preposterous new visions of the world and the tumultuous politics of those times.

Wonderful book (There are three big volumes in the Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver is the first.) I can't put this book down.

Rarely has the raw excitement of doing edge science been portrayed so well--and in those days everything was edge science. Saul-Paul would be pleased.

Five fluxions from Nick for Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

PS: True to the times there's loads of busty hussies and lustful wenching for those who enjoy such stuff.

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