It's About Time: From Calendars and Clocks to Moon Cycles and Light Years - A History

It's About Time: From Calendars and Clocks to Moon Cycles and Light Years - A History

by Liz Evers


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Beautifully packaged, this book examines the people and places behind time's inventions, as well as reveals oodles of quirky facts related to timekeeping

From the ice-age recordings of moon cycles and the earliest calendars, to modern wristwatches and quantum clocks, time and its effects have always enthralled mankind. People have spent centuries developing new ways of measuring time, describing it and quantifying it, and such methods have given rise to some of the most technically and aesthetically beautiful devices ever invented. This book is a tribute to timekeeping in its many forms and takes in the most significant creations as well as countless time trivia. Peppered with time-related anecdotes and quotes, this is an essential handbook for anyone fascinated by the fourth dimension.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782430674
Publisher: Michael O'Mara Books
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Liz Evers is the author of I Told You I Was Ill and I Used to Know That.

Read an Excerpt

It's About Time

From Calendars and Clocks to Moon Cycles and Light Years â" a History

By Liz Evers, Greg Stevenson

Michael O'Mara Books Limited

Copyright © 2013 Michael O'Mara Books Limited
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78243-087-2


The Land Before Time

Happy Birthday Planet Earth

In 1654, the Anglican Bishop of Armagh, James Usher, announced that the universe was created at six o'clock on the evening of 22 October 4004 BCE. He reportedly came to this rather definitive conclusion after years of studying the Bible and world history. This theory of the Earth's age was pretty popular right up to the nineteenth century, when the study of geology and Darwin's theory of evolution made it clear that the world was considerably older.

It is now widely believed to be 4.54 billion years old – or written out in full – 4,540,000,000 years old. That's a lot of years. The 4.54 billion figure has been reached using rather complex mathematics combined with the methods of 'radiometric' dating – which include radiocarbon dating, potassium-argon dating and uranium lead dating.

At its most basic, radiometric dating looks at radioactive decay. It compares the amount of a naturally occurring radioactive chemical component (isotope) and its decay products – we know, for example, that the radioactive component uranium decays to become lead, so looking at the amount of lead left in a rock one can calculate how much uranium there would have been to start with and so how long it has taken to produce the lead.

Applying these techniques to really, really old rocks and minerals – including meteorites and lunar samples – the magic figure of 4.54 billion has been reached and agreed upon. For now.

The oldest known terrestrial materials are zircon crystals found in Western Australia. These have been dated as over 4.4 billion years old. The oldest known meteorite matter is 4.567 billion years old. It is believed that our solar system can't be much older than these samples.

Which brings us to the time before there was an Earth, or a solar system to house it. To when our universe was born. The prevailing theory is that of the Big Bang, when the universe started expanding from a dense and hot state – and continues to expand into space, which is itself continually expanding.

The geologic time scale

Coming back down to Earth again, something called the 'geologic' time scale is used by earth scientists, geologists and palaeontologists to describe timings and events in our Earth's past. It relates time to 'stratigraphy' – the study of layers of rocks (stratification).

There are many wonderful examples of stratification bearing testament to the Earth's long history. Examples are found in chalk layers in Cyprus, the stunning Colorado Plateau in Utah, exposed strata on mountain faces in the French Alps, and the amazing Stratified Island near La Paz, Mexico, to name but a few.

The units used to describe geologic time are very long. They include Eons (half a billion years), Eras (several hundred million years), Epochs (tens of millions of years), and Ages (millions of years).

Taking it as read that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, the deposits of our old pal zircon, the oldest known mineral, were found during the Hadean Eon in the Cryptic Era. This is when the Moon and Earth were formed. Between 500 and 600 million years later in the Eoarchean Era, simple single-celled life came into being, evidence for which is found in microfossils – that is, fossils which are not larger than four millimetres, and often smaller than one millimetre, and which can only be studied using light or electron microscopy.

Skipping ahead to the Proterozoic Eon, geologic evidence shows that our atmosphere became oxygenic (specifically during the Palaeoproterozoic Era some 2.05 billion years ago), then the first complex single-celled life, protists, came into being around 1.8 billion years ago.

It took another 1.2 billion years for the first fossils of multi-celled animals (worms, sponges, soft jelly-like creatures) to show up during the Neo-proterozoic Era (around 635 million years ago) and these evolved into yet more complex fishy creatures during the long Palaeozoic Era (between 541 and 255 million years ago). By the end of this Era the landmass known as Pangaea had formed, comprised of North America, Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, Antarctica, and Australia. Various reptiles and amphibians were roaming about and basic flora, mosses and primitive seed plants had developed, while a host of marine life flourished in shallow reefs.

Thence to the Mesozoic Era. During its Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods (between 252 and 72 million years ago) the dinosaurs, first mammals and crocodilia appeared. Then flowering plants and all manner of new types of insects. Towards the end of the Cretaceous Period there were many new species of dinosaur (though not for long) and creatures equivalent to modern crocodiles and sharks. Primitive birds replaced pterosaurs and the first marsupials appeared. Plus atmospheric CO2 was close to our present-day levels.

Which brings us to our own Era – the Cenozoic – which started some 66 million years ago and is often referred to as the 'age of mammals'. In the early part of this Era, the dinosaurs were extinct (more on this to follow) and mammals were diversifying, but it would still be another 40-plus million years before the first apes, our evolutionary ancestors, appeared.

And it wasn't until just 200,000 years ago that the first anatomically modern humans appeared and only 50,000 years ago during the Holocene Epoch (which we're still in) that we started tinkering with stone tools.

The bottom line is the Earth is very old, and we are very young upon it. To put things in perspective, if you think of the age of the Earth as a 24-hour clock, the first humans appear just 40 seconds before midnight at 23:59:20.

Ice ages

Technically, we are still in an ice age. Admittedly at the tail end of it, the worst was over around 12,500 years ago. It began 2.6 million years ago, but the presence of ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic signal its continued existence.

The Swiss geographer and engineer Pierre Martel (1706–1767) was the first to posit the theory of ice ages. On a visit to the Chamonix valley in the Alps, he observed that the dispersal of boulders pointed to the fact that the glaciers had once been much larger, but had contracted with time. And this phenomenon was observable in other parts of Switzerland, Scandinavia and later noted in the Chilean Andes. But it wasn't until the 1870s that the theory was widely accepted as fact.

In addition to the erratic dispersal of large boulders, other evidence of ice ages comes in the form of rock scouring and scratching, valley cutting, the creation of small hills called drumlins and unusual patterns in the distribution of fossils.

There have been at least five ice ages in our Earth's history – and outside of these ages the Earth appears to have been free of ice, even at high latitudes. The first ice age was the Huronian, which is thought to have extended from 2.4 billion years ago to 2.1 billion years ago (that's before the existence of complex single-celled life forms). This was followed by the Cryogenian from 850 to 635 million years ago (when multi-celled creatures were evolving); the relatively short Andean-Saharan from 460 to 430 million years ago (as more complex marine life was evolving); the Karoo Ice Age from 360 to 260 million years ago (as the landmass Pangaea was forming); and finally the current ice age, Quaternary, which started 2.58 million years ago (a few hundred thousand years before the first of the Homo genus had evolved) and continues to this day.

We are now experiencing a relatively stable 'interglacial' period, which has provided the climate conditions that have allowed our race to flourish. Without this stability we may not have survived.

As to when the next ice age begins in earnest depends on the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. A sudden drop would speed up the arrival of the next ice age – even as soon as 15,000 years hence. But estimates based on rising CO2 (the more likely case given our penchant for fossil fuels) suggest that our current interglacial period may persist for another 50,000 years or even considerably longer.

Human evolution

It is astonishing how recent is most of our knowledge about ourselves and our planet. As mentioned above, the concept of ice ages was only first posited in the mid-1700s and generally accepted in the 1870s. The ideas of the 'evolution' of species, including humans, and 'natural selection' have only been knocking around since the mid-1800s, and only brought to the fore in 1859 when Charles Darwin (1809–1882) published On the Origin of Species. Even so, it took many more decades for Darwin's ideas about evolution to become mainstream and be incorporated into life sciences. Thinking about the Earth's age as a 24-hour clock again, the most infinitesimal units of time measurement would be required to place these discoveries in our planet's natural history.

There was uproar just a century and half ago when Darwin more explicitly outlined his theories about human evolution in his seminal 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. In it he suggests that human races evolved from a common ancestor – and that common ancestor from a succession of animals over millennia. It was an idea appalling to the majority of the day.

But with close study and uncovering ever more substantive evidence, the proof for many of Darwin's ideas became too compelling to deny. The evolutionary theory that emerged is now widely accepted as fact by the scientific community, if not by various religious communities. To this day 'Creationists', like our friend James Usher (1581-1656), Bishop of Armagh, believe the world was created by God in six days around 4004 BCE.

Our now considerable knowledge of the geologic time scale and fossil records gives us a fascinating portrait of the development of life on Earth. And discoveries in archaeology, palaeontology and DNA research continue to provide a vivid picture of our evolution as a species. We've seen already that it was just 200,000 years ago that the first anatomically modern humans appeared.

The Homo genus

It is thought that primates, from whom humans are descended, diverged from other mammals about 85 million years ago, though the earliest fossil records we have are from around 55 million years ago. The first bipeds diverged around 4 to 6 million years ago, splitting from cousin primates like chimpanzees with whom we share a common ancestor, and eventually evolving into the genus, or biological classification, Homo. There is no definitive timeline for the Homo genus, and there are many candidates for the evolutionary links in our chain:


The first documented members of the genus Homo, Homo habilis evolved around 2.3 million years ago in South and East Africa. It is thought to be the earliest species to use stone tools. Homo habilis's brains were around the size of a chimpanzee's. In May 2010, a new species, Homo gautengensis, was discovered in South Africa and may have evolved earlier than Homo habilis, but this has yet to be agreed conclusively.


These are proposed species names for fossils from about 1.9 to 1.6 million years ago but whose relation to Homo habilis is not yet clear. There is just one Homo rudolfensis specimen – an incomplete skull from Kenya, which may or may not be another Homo habilis. Homo georgicus comes from Georgia, in the Caucasus region, and may be an intermediate form between Homo habilis and Homo erectus.


Homo erectus had a long evolutionary lifespan. Records indicate that the species lived from about 1.8 million to about 70,000 years ago, possibly being largely wiped out by the so-called Toba catastrophe (a volcanic super-eruption in Indonesia, where many of the significant Homo erectus fossil finds are). It is thought that some populations of Homo habilis evolved larger brains and started to use more elaborate stone tools – leading to the new advanced classification Homo erectus. Other key physiological changes include the evolution of locking knees and a different location of the foramen magnum (the hole in the skull where the spine enters).


Homo heidelbergensis (also 'Heidelberg Man', after the University of Heidelberg) could be the direct ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals, see here) in Europe and Homo sapiens. The missing link, if you will. The best evidence found for these hominines dates them to between 600,000 and 400,000 years ago, but it is thought that they may have lived from about 800,000 to about 300,000 years ago.

Homo heidelbergensis used stone-tool technology that was very close to those used by Homo erectus, and recent findings of twenty-eight skeletons in Atapuerca in Spain suggest that this species may have been the first of the Homo genus to bury their dead. It is also thought that Homo heidelbergensis may have had a primitive form of language, although no forms of art (often equated with symbolic thinking and language) have been uncovered in relation to this species.


The most important evolutionary period for our species occurred between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago – the period of transition from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens. During this time, our cranial sizes expanded, meaning bigger brains, and we began to use ever-increasingly elaborate stone tools. As a species Homo sapiens are highly homogenous, genetically speaking. This is relatively unusual in any species so widely disbursed and is seen as evidence that we evolved in a particular place (Africa) and migrated from there. But we have evolved certain region-specific adaptive traits such as skin colour, and eyelid and nose shapes, for example.

Neanderthal man

Named after the Neander Valley in Germany where the species was first discovered, Neanderthals are alternatively classified as a subspecies of Homo sapiens or as a separate species but of the same Homo genus.

The earliest Neanderthals are though to have appeared in Europe 600,000 to 350,000 years ago (no evidence of Neanderthals has been found in Africa) – and to have survived there until around 25,000 years ago. Often characterized as primitive creatures with low brows and weak chins, they in fact used advanced tools (projectile points, bone tools), had a language and lived in complex social groups. The Neanderthal cranial capacity is thought to have been the same size as modern humans, possibly bigger. And when it comes to brains in the Homo genus, size really does matter.

Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record about 25,000 years ago. Theories abound as to what happened to them. But apart from hypotheses about a volcanic 'super-eruption' or their slowness to adapt to rapid changes in climate leading to their demise, it seems that the worst thing for Neanderthals was us. It is thought that Neanderthals were most likely driven to extinction because of living in competition with ever-expanding human populations. However, there is also evidence to suggest that we absorbed them through interbreeding. This latter idea is particular intriguing and DNA sequencing evidence from 2010 suggests that modern non-African humans in Europe and Asia share 1% to 4% of their genes with Neanderthals.

The Three Ages

Human prehistory is frequently divided up into three ages: Stone, Bronze and Iron.

All members of the Homo genus, from habilis to sapiens, existed within a period broadly defined as the 'Stone Age'– which lasted 3 million years or so and only ended between 4500 and 2000 BCE with the advent of metalworking at different times among different human populations.


Excerpted from It's About Time by Liz Evers, Greg Stevenson. Copyright © 2013 Michael O'Mara Books Limited. Excerpted by permission of Michael O'Mara Books Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The Land Before Time,
2. Marking Time,
3. Keeping Time,
4. The Best of Times,
5. Modern Times,
6. Future Time,
7. Space–time,
8. Thinking Time,

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