Waugh's 'Time' -- not just cesium oscillations

April 30, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,Sun Staff

"Time: Its Origin, Its Enigma, Its History," by Alexander Waugh. Carroll & Graf. 280 pages. $25.

Time dominates and defines virtually every citizen of the modern industrial world. We are acutely aware of its relentless onward movement, and that awareness governs how we act and how we see ourselves.

We structure our lives with clock and calendar close at hand. We try to organize work and leisure by the hour. We try to understand the rush of history and the passage of our own lives by referring to years, decades, centuries, eras.

Yet time, for all its power, is a mysterious sovereign. What is time? Have we always organized and understood it the way we now do? How did our eccentric measurements of time -- the 60-second minute, the seven-day week, the 10-year decade -- come to be?

Alexander Waugh sets out to survey this vast topic in a brief book; perhaps his studies of time have dissuaded him from asking his readers to yield up too much of it.

At any rate, a tour through Waugh's book is generally time well spent. It's full of fascinating and provocative facts, too revealing to be trivia. Such as this: Until fairly recently in human history, most people had only a cursory, informal sense of date and time. Such measurements were typically kept only by crown and clergy, and were often stated in terms of religious observance and royal reign. For example, April 19, 1514, was known to the English as "the fourth day after Easter in the sixth year in the reign of King Henry VIII."

This situation persisted until the 18th century, and the modern notion of decade and century didn't arise until late in the 19th. While Waugh does not flesh out the connection as much as he should, these radical changes in humanity's relation to time coincide with the Western world's embrace of liberal democracy, market capitalism and the culture of the self. As political power and wealth became more widely available, so did the means of evaluating time.

There are many other examples of how the passage of time has changed our notion of time. The smallest commonly understood measurement of time, the second, was defined in the 17th century as how long it took for a pendulum with a 39 1/2 -inch shaft to swing back and forth. Today, it's defined as 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a cesium atom.

Waugh offers several intriguing tales of the kings, priests and scientists who have sought to define the measurements of time. On several occasions, these discussions erupt into long, winding diversions.

Some of these work quite well. A primer on the careers and temperaments of Julius and Augustus Caesar is nicely done, and helps the reader understand why the month following July is now known as August instead of Sextilis and has 31 days instead of its original 30. The noble but vain Augustus could hardly stand for his month to have fewer days than Julius' July, so a day was subtracted from February and tacked onto August.

At other points, though, the reader is distracted by purposeless digressions and mannered writing. Waugh, the grandson of English novelist Evelyn Waugh, has the genes of a good writer and often lives up to his pedigree. However, he is also a bit too enamored of such annoying devices as imaginary dialogue.

Like its subject, the book moves sometimes with heady speed, sometimes with frustrating slowness. Both traits derive from the author's obvious and admirable desire to do his topic justice. On the whole he succeeds, and anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of time's mystery and variety would do well to lend him a few attentive hours.

Mark Ribbing joined The Sun in 1997 as a business reporter covering the telecommunications industry. He now spends his time on the newspaper's city desk.

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