"The Clockwork Universe" by Edward Dolnick (2011)
"Sometime between those two events, at some point in the course of the 1600s, the modern world was born. Even with hindsight, pinning down the birth date is next to impossible. Still, if we who live in the new world somehow found ourselves transported to Newton's London, we would have a chance of navigating our way. In Bruno's Rome we would founder and drown. And since these earliest days, the pace of change has only accelerated. The world has raced ahead, permanently in fast-forward, with science and technology taking an ever more conspicuous spot in the foreground."
Edward Dolnick served as a science writer for the Boston Globe. He went on to author several books, all of them non-fiction. He currently lives with his family in Washington D.C.
The title refers to the emergence of the scientific worldview in the late 1600s, and of the idea that we inhabit a world bound by natural laws, in which God, the original clockmaker, assumes an increasingly distant role.
The subtitle of this book, "Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World," is a bit misleading. The Royal Society plays a very minor role in The Clockwork Universe, and many of the details relating to it could have been removed without doing any harm to the book.
Instead of a dialectic between Newton and his English peers, The Clockwork Universe instead presents a battle of wills between the old ways of thinking and the new, between the two inventors of calculus (Newton and Leibniz), and between the scientific and theological sides of Newton's personality. At the end of all these struggles lies Newton's discoveries regarding gravity and the motions of celestial bodies, revelations largely misunderstood during his lifetime.
Despite the misleading subtitle, it's an entertaining book and an easy read. It's engaging from beginning to end, and the reader will come away from it with an appreciation for the magnitude of Newton's achievement. The chapters are short, the times in which Newton lived are well described, and the author's personal observations add a lot to the historical facts presented.
Oh, and don't worry. No understanding of calculus required.