A Brief History of Timekeeping

The Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks

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Pub Date 25 Jan 2022 | Archive Date 07 Feb 2022

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". . . inherently interesting, unique, and highly recommended addition to personal, professional, community, college, and academic library Physics of Time & Scientific Measurement history collections, and supplemental curriculum studies lists.” Midwest Book Review
"A wonderful look into understanding and recording time, Orzel’s latest is appropriate for all readers who are curious about those ticks and tocks that mark nearly every aspect of our lives." Booklist
“A thorough, enjoyable exploration of the history and science behind measuring time.” Foreword Reviews
It’s all a matter of time—literally.

From the movements of the spheres to the slipperiness of relativity, the story of science unfolds through the fascinating history of humanity’s efforts to keep time.

Our modern lives are ruled by clocks and watches, smartphone apps and calendar programs. While our gadgets may be new, however, the drive to measure and master time is anything but—and in A Brief History of Timekeeping, Chad Orzel traces the path from Stonehenge to your smartphone.

Predating written language and marching on through human history, the desire for ever-better timekeeping has spurred technological innovation and sparked theories that radically reshaped our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

Orzel, a physicist and the bestselling author of Breakfast with Einstein and How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog continues his tradition of demystifying thorny scientific concepts by using the clocks and calendars central to our everyday activities as a jumping-off point to explore the science underlying the ways we keep track of our time. Ancient solstice markers (which still work perfectly 5,000 years later) depend on the basic astrophysics of our solar system; mechanical clocks owe their development to Newtonian physics; and the ultra-precise atomic timekeeping that enables GPS hinges on the predictable oddities of quantum mechanics. 

Along the way, Orzel visits the delicate negotiations involved in Gregorian calendar reform, the intricate and entirely unique system employed by the Maya, and how the problem of synchronizing clocks at different locations ultimately required us to abandon the idea of time as an absolute and universal quantity. Sharp and engaging, A Brief History of Timekeeping is a story not just about the science of sundials, sandglasses, and mechanical clocks, but also the politics of calendars and time zones, the philosophy of measurement, and the nature of space and time itself. 

For those interested in science, technology, or history, or anyone who’s ever wondered about the instruments that divide our days into moments: the time you spend reading this book may fly, and it is certain to be well spent.
". . . inherently interesting, unique, and highly recommended addition to personal, professional, community, college, and academic library Physics of Time & Scientific Measurement history...

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Featured Reviews

Solstice caves. Gregorian compromise. "Give us our 11 days!" Mayan calendar ends (order your refills!). tictictic, the measure of time.

Orzel writes really clearly, even when the story is convoluted. The Julian calendar worked for 15 centuries before its rounding-error affected everyday life. I've read on this change in many books, but Orzel's is by far the best. But he also explains the Hebrew and Islamic moon-based calendars. One I never understood and the other was rare in my life until recently. Chronometers, for surveying and particularly for locating yourself east-to-west on the high seas, in search of treasure.

If you dig time, you must read this. Easily the best I have ever seen.

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This is a solid entry in the history of timekeeping genre. It's not technical so intelligent non-specialists should be OK with most of it. If you do have a technical background, there's enough here to keep your interest going. My one criticism would be more about editing than the coverage of the topic. Instead of starting with the oldest known timekeeping efforts, we need a big beginning to get our attention. My interest waned as I worked my through the older history, though I had seen a lot of the material before. Recommended for interested teens through all ages.

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Thank you to NetGalley and BenBella Books for the chance to read an early copy of this book!

This book is just about the most fun I've ever had reading serious non-fiction. It's a delightful and immensely readable journey through the history and science of marking time, from the Mayan calendar to standardized time zones to GPS. Even the footnotes are a joy to read, often featuring delightful asides. Highly recommended to anyone at all intrigued by the topic.

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What a great book! It takes you all the way from the very first recorded celestial observations to advances in quantum physics and special relativity, discussing how humans have studied and measured time. Orzel argues convincingly that timekeeping is a universal past-time, functioning as a means to "impose order and predictability onto an otherwise capricious and confusing universe". He also shows how timekeeping has changed from a foray of a small group of elites to something accessible to all of us, with various indirect advantages we likely don't think about, such as the use of accurate timekeeping for GPS navigation.

The chapters are ordered - appropriately enough - chronologically, and cover developments in different cultures, though are more weighted towards Europe/North America (especially in the modern sections). We see astronomical observations suggested by ancient tombs, water clocks used in ancient Greece and China, advances in medieval Europe, and modern-day labs working with atomic clocks. Lots of questions are answered: Why does February only have 28/29 days? Why is the Chinese New Year out of sync from the Gregorian New Year? Why did people think that the Mayans predicted 2012 to be the apocalypse? How did the current system of timezones come about? And is that stuff in sci-fi films about ageing at different rates real?

Orzel has a gift for explaining complicated phenomena clearly. He makes the odd joke here and there without it feeling at all forced, and doesn't shy away from explaining core physics concepts in detail (don't be fooled by the title - this is a fairly long read). Personally, I studied physics to age 18 and loved it, so was thankful for refreshers and new knowledge. If you are less into physics, you may prefer to skim-read sections (Orzel himself suggests skipping the more detailed information in the text boxes, and you can miss the footnotes if you are not interested (but I recommend them if you are!)). I also really appreciated how Orzel provides relevant information about social and politic developments that affected the history of science; these serve both to spice up the text and contextualise (the lack of) developments.

A small note: If you have a choice, I would recommend looking for a physical copy. I read the ebook and while the formatting is very good (and the illustrations are a nice touch), some of the diagrams (e.g. Loc 380 on equinoxes) were too faint / had too small text to make out without somehow zooming in.

I read a free ARC ebook copy, received via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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I loved this book!! It took something mundane on the surface and made it into a fascinating story. It was very readable and I had a hard time putting it down. I can’t wait to order a physical copy and give it a reread.

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