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Review of A Brief History of Timekeeping: The Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks by

A Brief History of Timekeeping: The Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks

by Chad Orzel

Not so sure about the brief part of this title. Aside from that, A Brief History of Timekeeping: The Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks indeed covers quite the range of timekeeping science and history—and you all know how much I love science books, and how much I love history books, so in case it isn’t clear, science history books are absolutely some of my favourite non-fiction. Applying to read this eARC from NetGalley and BenBella books was a no-brainer for me.

Chad Orzel, physicist and science writer, leads us through the progressive history of timekeeping technology and the accompanying social constructions of time. This is the thesis of the book, namely that our socially constructed temporal needs drove the search for increasingly precise timekeeping, which in turn influenced our conception of time. This feedback loop led us from Neolithic tracking of the changing seasons to marine chronometers, quartz watches, and atomic clocks that keep time down to the picosecond. Orzel both explicates the physical qualities of timekeeping methods and explores the people and processes involved in inventing or discovering these methods.

Some of the scientific explanations here can get quite intense. The book tries to separate the most intense and detailed parts of these explanations into sidebars (not that sidebars really … work … in an ebook). Nevertheless, even in the main part of the text, Orzel is assuming a fair amount of high school physics knowledge. I don’t think this is a downside, and even if, like me, a lot of that knowledge has atrophied for you, you will still be able to understand the gist of what Orzel is saying. Nevertheless, his explanations overall have reminded me of the sheer brilliance of the scientific method. The world we inhabit today exists not from the brilliance of individuals making profound leaps but rather from the persistence of experimenters, of craftspeople, of engineers and designers. The history of timekeeping is an iterative history, and when you think of it, so much of our technology is like that.

As far as the history goes, I think there’s something in here that will be new for almost everyone. You might be familiar with a couple of the events Orzel mentions—for example, he covers John Harrison’s efforts to win the Admiralty Board’s Longitude Prize (and comes for my girl Dava Sobel’s version of the story in the process!), and this was something I’ve read about before. But I really liked his exploration of the intricate mathematical efforts of first-millennium CE monks to line up and fix the calendars. Again, I keep thinking about our modern society’s dependence on computers for speedy, complex calculations. In actuality, up until recently, any kind of complex calculation would take someone hours or even days, let alone the time needed for double-checking.

This is part of the charm and power of A Brief History of Timekeeping. Like many a good science history, it helps me marvel in the wondrous nature of human innovation and inquiry. We went from hunting and gathering to agricultural revolutions all the way up to harnessing the power of the atom in order to measure our ever-changing definition of time … that’s just … wow. Yeah, this is a bit of a long read for something brief, but Orzel tells it well and in a way that makes every page worth it.


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