The agile narrative in this extraordinarily informative and always entertaining book examines the mysteries of time and chronicles the human struggle to measure, utilize, understand, and explain it. The cast of characters in the tale ranges from the primitive homo erectus to modern time explorers, from Zeno to Caesar to Pope Gregory, Galileo, Einstein and Stephen Hawkings; and their stage is the world, the universe, the galaxy.
Starting with the creation, when time began -- perhaps with a big bang, maybe in a garden called Eden -- the book records the flops and follies, triumphs and fears, crackpot theories and wondrous discoveries that have shaped the way we today conceive of time and tell it. And with atomic clocks, the author notes, we can tell it with an accuracy that loses only a second every 316,000 years. On the other hand, no one noticed for ninety-nine years that a sundial in ancient Rome was recording time incorrectly.
Calendars, eons, minutes, eternity -- no clement of time is overlooked in this enlightening book that is as rich in anecdote as it is comprehensive in knowledge.
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In the beginning, Genesis tells us, was darkness and void, the terrible bleakness of infinity. Modern science has sought to understand that time before time, to describe the origins of the universe, and to model how the world will come to its explosive or whimpering end.
Alexander Waugh, a scion of the family of British satirists, brackets his history of time with the essentially unknowable matters of origin and denouement. But what captures his interest more is the time in between; namely, how different cultures have organized chronological reality and left their mark on our calendar today. Organizing his narrative by units of time that progress from seconds to ages, Waugh looks into the history of water clocks, the temporal theories of Sumerian astronomers and Greek philosophers, and the calendrical reforms of Roman emperors, medieval popes, French revolutionaries, and modern physicists. Waugh writes with a light touch and with much good humor, throwing in his view of whether the third millennium begins in 2000 or 2001 (he calls advocates of the latter position "carping fusspots") and musing over such heady matters as whether the space-time continuum disproves once and for all the theory of free will.
If you're at all interested in how our calendar came to be--or need instructions on how to build your own Stonehenge--then Time is just the book for you. --Gregory McNamee
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