If you want an accessible history of early modern mathematics, this is the book for you. The marketing is off, as if the author changed course about a third of the way through but neglected to inform his publishers or, for that matter, alter the first third of the book. It’s presented as a history of English science in the late 17th century, and the first third focuses on fairly simplistic scene-setting. Other reviewers have rightly pointed out that the speeches of Jonathan Edwards—an 18th century New England preacher descended from people who left England due to intolerance of their extreme religious views—should not be pointed to as an articulation of “standard doctrine” in England decades earlier, and this sort of thing calls the author’s sweeping statements about religion into question.
That said, eventually Dolnick tosses aside his shackles and digs into what really interests him, which is a history of math, particularly how mathematical discoveries were viewed in a religious context and why the invention/discovery of calculus was so important. This is actually quite readable and engaging, and short chapters and diagrams make the math pretty digestible for the intelligent reader who may not remember much from school. (I actually felt like it was a little bit too simplistic. My memories of high school calculus were barely jogged.) Interestingly, the math focus means that except for Newton, the people Dolnick focuses on are largely not English: Leibniz, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes all have their turn in the spotlight. Since English-language histories of science are so Anglocentric generally, this was both great, in that I learned a little about people I hadn’t read much about, and frustrating, in that why drag us through 100 pages of English history first if this is where we’re going? Why not get the context of these other countries, presumably less familiar to most English-speaking readers, instead?
But okay. It’s a readable history of math, with some pretty interesting details. I didn’t know, for instance, that Descartes invented the idea of plotting change on a graph in the 17th century or what a breakthrough this was. Or about the way credulity, at the time, was seen by thinkers as a sign of intelligence, apparently as contrasted with hidebound peasants who refused to believe anything they didn’t see with their own eyes. (Naturally, this resulted in the thinkers believing some wacky things.) It’s not the book I would recommend if you actually want to read about late 17th century science, since it barely touches anything non-mathematical, so for other subjects, try Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution instead. But it’s a quick read and I don’t regret reading it.