Time's Pendulum

Jo Ellen Barnett

Read May 2003

A flawed but honorable first book. Barnett, whose author's blurb admits to a "lifelong fascination with clocks and timekeeping", sets out to record both the history of timekeeping and the perception of time.

The early chapters of the book are devoted to timepieces. These are fairly routine history, though enhanced by some diagrams and a good index. The chapters also outline the gradual movement from canonical to rational hours, and then standardizing these in an era of communication, eventually transforming time from a physical to a notional unit.

The latter part of the book is original and somewhat startling. She suddenly deviates into geography, discussing how the earth changes from the origin of timekeeping to the subject of it. Suddenly the book is fresh again, sometimes even provocative. Thank goodness her editor let her include this material.

One problem with any book like this is that it must be rather technical to succeed in educating its readers. A major failing with this book is that all of its science is from secondary sources, including many compendia. Even when she cites a primary source (such as Charles Lyell), it's a quote she read elsewhere (Gould, in this instance). This shows in the writing, most of which handles the science rather loosely. Probably because she's quoting so much of the science, she also fails to ask natural questions. (For instance, she points out that the earth's period of revolution used to be 400 days. But how can you tell how long a year took from records millions of years old? What periodic marker gave away the passage of a year?)

The writing is sometimes charmingly amateurish. She is excitable, and has too great a tendency to wax philosophical. Much of this isn't groundbreaking, though for a general, non-scientific audience, it's probably novel and thought-provoking (and she does have some good observations on the distinction between matter and time, and our comfort with each). The editing is sometimes poor: "quantitated" for "quantified", a consistent misspelling of James Watt's last name as Watts, etc. And for all her ruminations, she fails to notice how computing has changed our perception and use of time. Who can forget the quote in Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine: "I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season"?

Interestingly, many chapters of this book could be separate books in their own right—and they are! Whole chapters correspond directly to books published in just the past five years or so: Longitude (Sobel), The Ice Finders (Bolles), Time Lord (Blaise), The Map that Changed the World (Winchester), and perhaps others (though her book precedes most of them). Some of these other books are excellent. Yet Barnett ties these strings together quite nicely in a compact debut.