Jan 20 • 54M

Chad Orzel: A Brief History of Timekeeping

The history and science of measuring time

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Chad Orzel is a physicist and science writer who has been blogging for twenty years. He’s the author of four books, Breakfast with Einstein: The Exotic Physics of Everyday Objects, How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist. On this episode of the Unsupervised Learning podcast, Razib talks to Chad about his newest book, A Brief History of Timekeeping, a mix of cultural and engineering history, archeology and physics.

It is a wide-ranging book, jumping all the way from the calendrical functions of Neolithic megaliths to the future of quantum clocks. Since much of the work covers history and archeology, Razib and Chad discuss the cultural and historical context of Neolithic Europe, and in particular historical genetic findings about the builders of Newgrange, one of the “astronomical calendars” featured in A Brief History of Timekeeping. Chad also outlines the cultural, historical, and engineering aspects of astronomical calendars, and the quirks in the Maya system that made 2012 so important. Then Razib asks about water clocks and other physical-based instruments that measure time, items that often feature in period pieces, but have long been superseded by modern technologies. 

One of the aspects of A Brief History of Timekeeping that makes it different from Chad’s earlier works in physics is that there are so many concrete everyday facts of life he explores with surprising historical origins. For example, he discusses how Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) became a de facto standard (and no, it does not have to do with Britain’s imperial preeminence over a century ago), as well as the cultural changes wrought by standardized time in the late 19th century, as our work and life clocks started to come into sync across time zones.

Going back to physics, the conversation eventually addresses how Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity changed our perception of fixed and invariant time. Finally, Chad and Razib talk about futuristic methods of time measurement, like nuclear and quantum clocks. Though the human fixation with time has deep roots, it is clear its importance in technology means that we will keep improving.

This episode is for paid subscribers