"A calendar is a tool," the historian of science E.J. Bickerman once observed, "which cannot be justified by either logic or astronomy."
Duncan Steel, an English space scientist, extends that argument in Marking Time, a broad-ranging history of the Western calendar--a chronological system that is logical after a fashion, but strangely flawed all the same. Steel begins his account by considering George Washington's dual birthday, which he celebrated as falling on February 11, 1731, but Americans celebrated as February 22, 1732. Both, Steel shows, are correct, the discrepancy owing to a later calendrical reform that parts of the world have yet to catch up to (so that Russia's October Revolution, by non-Russian standards, occurred in November). Steel examines the long history of attempts to give the calendar a basis in astronomical fact, shows how the advent of the railroad brought with it the need for a system of standardized mean time, examines the likeliest dates for the birth and death of Jesus, and plucks countless fascinating oddments from the historical record. He doesn't shy away from advancing controversial ideas, one being that the meridian time of Washington, D.C. may be a more useful world standard than that of Greenwich, England--and not merely for political reasons. Neither is he afraid to use sometimes difficult mathematics to prove his points, giving his book a depth that many other popular studies of the calendar lack.
With the dawning millennium, time is much on our minds. This is a book to satisfy idle curiosity, settle dinner-table arguments, and simply enjoy. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Australian astronomer Steel (Rogue Asteroids and Doomsday Comets) appears to have packed three disparate books into this single volume: a general history of the development of the calendar system, a more advanced version larded with astronomical information for the science buff or professional, and a reassessment of why England settled the mid-Atlantic coast of North America. According to Steel, Elizabeth I's colonization activities were part of her maneuvering against Pope Gregory XIII. Well aware of the Gregorian calendar's flaws, English scientists thought that if they developed a superior calendar, it would help effect a rapprochement with European nations fence-sitting in the quarrel between London and Rome. Possession of territory on the 77th meridian, in the vicinity of what is now Washington, D.C., was crucial, because English calendar reformers considered it to be "God's longitude." Steel's account of this grand, somewhat daft scheme makes an intriguing study in its own right, yet it gets lost amid a tangle of unrelated facts. He advances other interesting theories with abundant background information to back them up: that Jesus was born in April 5 B.C.E. and that there was no room at the inn because it was Passover, not because of an empire-wide census; that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet; and that some major celestial event occurred around 3000 to 4000 B.C.E. because so many of the world's calendar systems began around that time. Steel seems to have never met an interesting fact he didn't like to repeat, and this unfortunate habit bogs down an otherwise excellent study of calendar systems. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.