A Brief History of Timekeeping
The Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks
Oneworld Publications 2022
Pb, 336 pp, £10.99, ISBN 9780861542154
If you think of timekeeping in terms of clocks and watches, then this book looks alarmingly thick for a “brief history” of the subject. In fact it’s even longer than the page count suggests, because it’s printed in an eye-strainingly small font (my only real criticism of it).
But the topics just mentioned only occupy four of the 16 chapters. The others deal with various ways the measurement of time has shaped the development of science and society through the ages, from the celestial alignments of Newgrange and Stonehenge to Einstein’s theory of relativity and the practicalities of GPS navigation.
While the latter may not have an obvious connection with time, it’s intimately related to the timing of satellite signals, making it probably the greatest triumph of precision timekeeping to date.
Chad Orzel is a professional scientist, and that defines the general approach of the book. Personally, though, I found the historical and social insights just as fascinating. For example, there’s a chapter devoted to the complexities of the Mayan calendar – that’s the one that (through an egregious misunderstanding) triggered all the nuttiness of the 2012 phenomenon.
Another chapter deals with the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar, which happened in most of Europe in 1582, but not until 1752 in Britain. A couple of years after that, in his satirical painting “An Election Entertainment”, William Hogarth depicted disgruntled Tory voters protesting against the change. A trampled placard reads “give us our 11 days” – which led to the longstanding myth that the protesters really did believe they’d been robbed of several days of their lives. In fact, their main objection to the change was simply that it had been forced on them by the pro-European Whig government.
This demonstrates how, as Orzel puts it, the calendar is a social rather than scientific construct, as likely to be driven by politics as anything else.
If you’re looking for a pageturning popular science book which is full of quirky, unexpected turns, then you could do a lot worse than this one. Where else are you going to find Salisbury Cathedral, Chichen Itza, John Dee, Niels Bohr, black holes, flat-earthers, horoscopes, lasers, railways and the longitude prize all rubbing shoulders with each other?