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ARC Review: A Brief History of Timekeeping


 A Brief History of Timekeeping is both history and science, and so is the kind of book I  gravitate to. 

Author Chad Orzel starts with a strong statement in his introduction - "we [humanity] are and always have been a species that builds clocks". He then goes on to do a pretty good job justifying that statement with the rest of the book, which takes us from Neolithic megastructure timekeeping to today's atomic clocks that keep the time on our cellphones current, and the (historically extremely accurate) quartz watches many of us wear on our wrists.

Orzel is a scientist himself - holding a PhD in Chemical Physics - and also a Professor at Union College in Schenectady, NY.  He's the author of several other pretty well received popular science books, such as the humorously titled How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog.

In this book Orzel promises to keep the content "approachable and engaging for as broad an audience as possible". To do so, he separates out more technical discussions into sidebars set off from the main text. You can choose to delve into the sidebars, or skip them knowing you'll still get the gist of what he's talking about. This approach works pretty well in the early chapters of the book (and yes, of course I read the sidebars). But later in the book as he gets into quantum physics and atomic clocks the main text gets pretty darn technical and the sidebars grow to multiple pages. I'm not too proud to admit that most, if not all, of the chapter on Quantum Clocks was way over my head. Well, my college days are far behind me, and it's apparent that I've hit that age where I've forgotten more than most college kids know.

In general though I found the book enjoyable. There is plenty of history here I didn't know about, and some things, like the advanced water clocks of China, that I was aware of but learned much more about. He's spends a fair amount of time on the Aztecs and their cosmology and calendar system, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

My personal preference in a history of science book like this one is that the author go heavy on the history and keep the science to the "explain it to me like I'm a fifth grader" level. This book is apparently adapted from a course Orzel teaches in the Physics Department at Union, and so perhaps for that reason the science throughout was a bit "heavier" than I would have liked. So for that reason I give A Brief History of Timekeeping Three Stars ⭐⭐⭐.

NOTE: I received an advanced reviewer's copy of this book through NetGalley and BenBella Books in exchange for a fair and honest review. The book will be generally available on January 25, 2022.
A Brief History of Timekeeping links:

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