Time tracking, writes Chad Orzel in the introduction to his latest book, “A Brief History of Timekeeping,” is a characteristic concern not only of modern society, but of human civilization as well.
“The process of building and perfecting timekeeping devices has been a major driver of scientific and technological progress for millennia,” writes the author. “From Neolithic solstice markers to mechanical watches to ultra-precise laser frequency standards, we are and always have been a species that builds clocks.”
It’s been over 5,000 years to unpack the science and technology that humans have used to track time. If anyone can deliver a fascinating, fun, and engaging take on sundials and Su Song, it’s Orzel, associate professor of physics and astronomy.
He has proven quite adept at explaining complex subjects to non-scientists, in the previous books “How to Teach Your Dog Physics”, “How to Teach Your Dog Relativity” and “Eureka: Discovering Your inner scientist,” and in his regular blog entries for Forbes and sub-stack.
Orzel even has something for those who aren’t intimidated by science content. Throughout the book, shaded bars along the sides of the page highlight sections that delve into the scientific principles underlying timing methods. The non-scientist may choose to skip these pages.
The American Physical Society recently honored Orzel as a Fellow of the Society. Orzel was nominated in part for his work in improving public knowledge and appreciation of physics.
Orzel joined Union in 2001.
When did you start writing the book?
The proposal was made in mid-2019, so the writing started in earnest around that time. I had been tossing around the idea for a while, though.
The book has its origins in a second-year research seminar course at Union?
The first real iteration of this idea was a guest lecture at an SRS taught by Anastasia Pease in English, who asked me to give a brief overview of the science of time. I put together something very general for this and thought, “Hey, there’s something here.”
I presented it as a possible SRS for the Scholars program. I did it three times, in 2012, 2015 and 2018. The first time I gave the students the opportunity to do standard library research, but the other two I asked them to do some kind of actual measurement of time or timing. device as part of their final projects, and it’s been a lot more fun. I had students build and test sundials, build and test an impressive variety of water clocks, and test the performance of a bunch of watch types. I think it ends up giving students a much clearer idea of what science research is – they don’t just read books; they actually study how things behave in the real world.
How was the class received by the students?
It went pretty well, overall; the students made some really cool and inventive projects. My favorite might be the student who decided to study the effect of temperature changes on a pendulum clock, who constructed a long pendulum from a plastic rod and measured its period of oscillation at the both in the kitchen of Dutch Hollow and in the yard outside Reamer on a freezing day, and saw a measurable difference between them. I also had a few students make some amazingly elaborate water clocks, including at least one of a type I had never heard of before they came up with it.
How did you conduct research for the book?
Lots of internet research and lots of book orders through the Schaffer Library. It was complicated by the fact that I was about four chapters away from the first draft when COVID hit and everything ground to a halt. I owe a huge debt to the librarians who pulled books from the stacks for me.
While researching for the book, what was the most interesting thing you learned?
This was actually research for the class, but I was surprised to learn how recent the hourglass is – in fact, hourglasses were invented around the same time as mechanical clocks. The first depiction of something that is unambiguously an hourglass is in a fresco in Siena, Italy, from 1330, but the idea was probably around for quite a while before that, and the first mechanical clocks also date from the 1200s. was surprising, as it seems like an idea that should be very old – water clocks date back to before 1500 BCE – but it wasn’t in common use until surprisingly recently.
What do you hope the reader will take away from the book?
Two things: first, our obsession with telling the time is not a modern American development; it’s something that dates back thousands of years and is found in virtually every culture we have decent information about. Many of the oldest human structures we know of have a timing function, with alignments that help keep track of the time of year. And the science of time tracking led to the development of sophisticated calendars and clocks in ancient cultures, not only around the Mediterranean, but also in East Asia and the Americas.
And second, that the modern science of timing touches all sorts of areas of modern life, beyond using Google Calendar on your phone to keep your day on time. The global positioning system we use to navigate to new places or play augmented reality games is based on the time kept by atomic clocks, for example, so it has a very direct application. It also has important philosophical implications – the origins of the theory of relativity and its radical revision of our understanding of time and space are closely linked to practical concerns about clocks.