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A Natural History of Time [Hardcover]

Pascal Richet , John Venerella
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 1, 2007 0226712877 978-0226712871 1

The quest to pinpoint the age of the Earth is nearly as old as humanity itself. For most of history, people trusted mythology or religion to provide the answer, even though nature abounds with clues to the past of the Earth and the stars. In A Natural History of Time, geophysicist Pascal Richet tells the fascinating story of how scientists and philosophers examined those clues and from them built a chronological scale that has made it possible to reconstruct the history of nature itself.

Richet begins his story with mythological traditions, which were heavily influenced by the seasons and almost uniformly viewed time cyclically. The linear history promulgated by Judaism, with its story of creation, was an exception, and it was that tradition that drove early Christian attempts to date the Earth. For instance, in 169 CE, the bishop of Antioch, for instance declared that the world had been in existence for “5,698 years and the odd months and days.”

Until the mid-eighteenth century, such natural timescales derived from biblical chronologies prevailed, but, Richet demonstrates, with the Scientific Revolution geological and astronomical evidence for much longer timescales began to accumulate. Fossils and the developing science of geology provided compelling evidence for periods of millions and millions of years—a scale that even scientists had difficulty grasping. By the end of the twentieth century, new tools such as radiometric dating had demonstrated that the solar system is four and a half billion years old, and the universe itself about twice that, though controversial questions remain.

The quest for time is a story of ingenuity and determination, and like a geologist, Pascal Richet carefully peels back the strata of that history, giving us a chance to marvel at each layer and truly appreciate how far our knowledge—and our planet—have come.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For millennia humans relied on mythical or biblical accounts to conjure up a birth date for our planet. Astronomer Edmund Halley used the amount of salt in the oceans as his calendar. The great Newton ventured at writing a chronology that took most of the stories of Greek kings and heroes at face value. But as French geophysicist Richet tells readers, people didn't get serious about ascertaining the age of the Earth until the Enlightenment, when researchers tried to figure the amount of heat lost by the Earth to reckon backward to its molten youth. But a firm date—4.5 billion years—couldn't be established until the discovery of radioactive elements to date everything from textiles to stones. Richet writes in a meandering European style as he draws in figures from other fields (who would have guessed that Voltaire was Newton's principal advocate on the Continent?) to fill out his story. His writing occasionally plods along, and attempts at humor sometimes fall flat, although these may be just hazards of translation. Geology and natural science buffs will discover a rich, baroquely embellished birthday cake to dig into and enjoy. 12 half-tones, 27 line drawings.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Geology and natural science buffs will discover a rich, baroquely embellished birthday cake to dig into and enjoy."
(Publishers Weekly)

"Not only does A Natural History of Time shed light on key advances in the history of science, from the ancient Greeks to the X-ray, it reminds us of the real heroism and nobility of the scientific enterprise. Today, science and technology have advanced to such a point that we tend to think mainly about their dangers—nuclear weapons, global warming, cloning. Yet our lives are supported by an immense edifice of scientific ingenuity, which we seldom understand or even think about. Mr. Richet reminds us that each acre of the continent of modern science was won back from an ocean of ignorance, by the hard work and intellectual courage of individuals."
(Adam Kirsch New York Sun)

"Richet's real interest isn't time. It is age. Like many of his characters, he is down with a 'fever of chronology.' He is fascinated by every speculation in the entire history of Western thought that bears upon the question of the Earth's antiquity. The wonderful thing is that he succeeds in changing what might have been dry recitation into an almost Dickensian world of characters in conflict and in love."
(William Bryant Logan Globe and Mail)

"This is one of those books that provides a refreshing shift in the way we look at things we take for granted, something all good storytelling does."
(Robert Birnbaum Book Digest)

"If you want to know the real story behind the deciphering of the age of our planet, A Natural History of Time is the definitive account."
(Lynne M. Clos Fossil News)

"A satisfying and easy read as well as an approach to the telling of a fascinating story that I have not encountered in any other book. . . . A book that even readers with only a modest understanding of science will find easy to read, yet which is rich enough in its narrative to satisfy even the most knowledgeable specialist."
(G. Brent Dalrymple Reports of the National Center for Science Education)

"The story of how the age of the earth was determined is a marvellous concatenation of red herrings and presuppositions from which the truth eventually emerges. . . . I cannot imagine a better attempt at such a broad sweep through science and history. . . . Richet's natural history is—dare I say it?—timely."
(Richard A. Fortey TLS)

"Precisely because the current well-grounded chronology seems so natural to most scientifically literate people, Richet's authoritative review of Earth's history is particularly welcome."
(Laurence A. Marschall Natural History)

"A rich, wide-ranging, and authoritative history, well-spiced anecdote . . . and welcome flashes of humor."
(David Toomey The Historian)

"I can strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of science."
(Stephen G. Brush Journal for the History of Astronomy)

"A Natural History of Time is the outcome of a remarkable effort. The reader is provided with historical background and with a tremendous wealth of information on a topic that raised cultural and religious problems throughout the centuries."
(Ivano Del Prete Nuncius)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (June 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226712877
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226712871
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.7 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,295,101 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stretching the clock December 7, 2007
These days nearly anybody can cite the idea of relativity with the Einsteinian comparison of our perception of time if we're sitting on a hot stove or next to a pretty girl. It took many centuries and controversies before a realistic view of time was developed. The theories and research, as Richet presents it, were long confined to the Mediterranean and European nations. He simply passes over time-keepers in Asia or the Western Hemisphere to launch his discussion with the Book of Genesis. From there he takes us on an encyclopaedic tour of Western European science and how its findings led to a more precise determination of the age of our planet. The original title [in French], was "The Age of the Earth: Toward the Discovery of the Immensity of Time." A far more accurate label for this work.

Considerations of time began as philosophical questions. The obvious passage of time, days, "moonths" and seasons were practical matters, but were clearly cyclical. Even advanced cultures, such as Pharaonic Egypt, restarted the calendar with each new ruler. Linear time, Richet notes, was a significant break with past thinking about time. Significantly, the concept postulated an identifiable beginning - first of time, then of the Earth itself. From what he calls the "Mosaic Chronology", the new idea became the focus of a search for the age of our planet. But a novel concept didn't provide new ways of measuring time for many centuries.

One teasing bit of evidence, known even by the ancients, were fossils. Seashells found in rocks high in mountains were an enigma. It was a long time before they were accepted as something once organic instead of simply anomalous stones. The very means of forming rocks was debated.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Much detail into history of our knowledge of time February 14, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Translated from original French, Found it very informative into the background history of many of our baby steps and sometimes giant steps forward in Science and technology. Very good
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