Reviewer: David Bross of Williamsport.
Title: "About Time" by Adam Frank.
Synopsis: Beginning with the dawn of civilization and moving into the distant future, the author presents a cultural history of time and its impact on our lives.
When our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, the day-night and seasonal cycles were how they measured time.
As societies became more complex, it was necessary to regulate the daily religious and economic activities of the community.
For centuries, bell towers were used to accomplish this task in a way similar to the factory whistle announcing the beginning or end of shifts and lunch breaks.
In the 1300s, advances in technology allowed towns to replace the bells with clocks, further organizing the daily activities of their inhabitants.
But these clocks only had hour hands. It took about 300 years to overcome the technical challenges of adding a minute hand to clocks. It may sound odd, but the addition of the minute hand was a major step forward, both technologically and culturally.
With the addition of the minute hand, sailors could more accurately determine their position at sea and this allowed for the beginning of our current global economy.
In the 1800s, as the speed of communication and transportation increased, people found that measuring time was complicated by the fact that "now" varied widely across the globe. For example, sending a telegram required both sender and receiver to understand that "now" could be mid-morning for the sender and late evening for the recipient.
As trains traveled faster, the fact that noon happened at different times across our country, wreaked havoc with schedules. For example, noon in New York City was about five minutes ahead of noon in Philadelphia.
These advances in communications and transportation were the driving factors behind adopting the idea of time zones.
Today, we need to measure time in fractions of a second as well as acknowledge that time is not a constant. For example, our GPS devices would be worthless if they didn't take into account Einstein's discovery that time slows down for fast moving objects (like satellites), and speeds up away from the gravity of large objects like Earth.
As the author looks to the future, he discusses many theories that seem to twist our current ideas about time into knots. Some theories state that the past, present, and future are artificial distinctions. Others deal with the nature of the Universe. Does it have a beginning and end? Does it have a recurring life cycle similar to the Hindu idea of rebirth?
Stats: Published by Free Press in 2011, 337 pages.
What I thought: This could have been a deadly "textbook read," but the author presented his ideas in a clear and reader-friendly fashion. What was most fascinating about this book was how the author demonstrated that time is a fluid, flexible concept as well as a cornerstone of civilization.