Barring a major disaster, I am scheduled to teach one of our Scholars Research Seminar classes next winter. I’ve been kicking the idea for this around for a while, with the semi-clever title “A Brief History of Timekeeping.” The idea is to talk about the different technologies people have used to mark the passage of time, from Stonehenge down to modern atomic clocks. There’s a lot of good science in there, from astronomy (sundials and the like) to basic mechanics (pendulums and so on) to quantum physics (atomic clocks) and even relativity. And there’s plenty of room for side trips into other fields– tons of interesting historical anecdotes, various works of art playing with concepts of time, etc. the hard part will be cutting it all down to fit in a ten-week term.

I have a million things to do– lecture to write, papers to grade, my AAAS talk to prepare, and, you know, a book to write–but of course, I’m already thinking about this, in a semi-idle kind of way. And in an effort to not forget all of these thoughts before I have to wrangle the vague concept into a coherent syllabus, I figure I might as well post the occasional notes here, where I can both get a permanent-ish record of it, and also bounce ideas off my very clever readers.

So, one of the learning outcomes that is supposed to come from this type of class is critical thinking, or in the terms of the guidelines: “EVALUATE EVIDENCE: Critically and ethically analyze evidence obtained for examination of a research question or thesis.” I was already thinking of using Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Stick in the Mud Science” from Death by Black Hole (a version of which is on the Hayden Planetarium website) as an easy introduction to the astronomy stuff, but it occurs to me that this could be used to hit the evidence evaluation question as well.

The idea would be to pair this with some piece of Ancient Alien type kookery, the sort of thing where the author contends that ancient humans couldn’t possibly have managed the sophisticated observations needed to so perfectly align some ancient monument with the solstices or equinoxes or what have you. Tyson specifically calls this sort of thing out at the end of the essay, which makes the point that as long as you’ve got a stick and a lot of patience, you can easily determine all sorts of cool stuff about the motion of astronomical bodies. Most of the alignments they natter on about aren’t all that difficult to manage.

I’ve also got a really old James Randi book somewhere (I got it from Ralph Alpher’s office when he retired) that has a bunch of good debunkings of this stuff, which might make for a third reading for a kind of low-impact introduction to the basic goals.

The hardest part of this might be finding the right sort of kook work to put with the science pieces. And arranging it so that it doesn’t result in money moving towards crazy people– I wouldn’t want to encourage students to buy a von Daniken book, or anything like that. But that’s what the Internet is for, I suppose– a little Googling ought to turn up all kinds of candidates…

Hmmm…. Now that I think about it, I wonder if How to Lie With Statistics shouldn’t be on the reading list, too, or at least some excerpts from it. There’s not much better in the quick and easy learn-to-evaluate-sources area, and it’s cheap.

And you begin to see how this will eat my life…

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    February 10, 2011

    An oldie but goodie (and apparently still in print) is Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. It’s too old to cover von Daniken, but it does deal with the likes of Velikovsky and other flying saucer kooks from the 1940s and 1950s.

    A more recent book on pathological science is Yes, We Have No Neutrons by A. K. Dewdney. The closest thing in here to the material you are planning to cover would be the chapter on SETI, but it also gives a list of characteristics of pathological science, which is useful to have if you should ever encounter some (as I have).

    (I own copies of both books.)

  2. #2 ThirtyFiveUp
    February 10, 2011

    Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
    by Dava Sobel about John Harrison.

    Could you work this in?

  3. #3 Chuk
    February 10, 2011

    You will notice from this exercise that the middle of the day occurs when the shadow is at its shortest. At that moment, the shadow points due south, if you are north of Earth’s equator, and due north if you are south of the equator. from the Hayden Planetarium site.

    Is that right? It seems non-intuitive to me. If you are north of the equator (as I am), won’t shadows be pointing north at noon?

  4. #4 Grep Agni
    February 11, 2011

    Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World by David S. Landes is a fascinating look at the history of mechanical clocks. The early chapters especially, covering medieval timekeeping in Europe and China and why Europe ended up with far superior clocks is worth reading. Apparently the book has been “revised and expanded” to over 500 pages — I read the 1983 version which seemed rather shorter. I don’t think there’s any reason for students to buy the book, but some chapters might make good reading.

  5. #5 Grep Agni
    February 11, 2011

    Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World by David S. Landes is a fascinating look at the history of mechanical clocks. The early chapters especially, covering medieval timekeeping in Europe and China and why Europe ended up with far superior clocks is worth reading. Apparently the book has been “revised and expanded” to over 500 pages — I read the 1983 version which seemed rather shorter. I don’t think there’s any reason for students to buy the book, but some chapters might make good reading.

  6. #6 BigHank53
    February 11, 2011

    My Own Right Time, by Philip Woodward is worth looking at too, especially as he deals with some of the fundamental problems of timekeeping while building his own clocks, including 1/f noise. Yes, it turns up in mechanical clocks too…

  7. #7 Sili
    February 12, 2011

    Alpha Alpher?

  8. #8 Kaleberg
    February 12, 2011

    How much time do you want to spend on kooks? It might be more interesting to talk about estimating error and figure out how wrong you could be just using a bunch of sticks. If it’s a sunny day, you could even estimate your longitude around noon, given access to the internet and the time in Greenwich. Those old weird looking maps weren’t because sticks weren’t good measuring tools, but because it was hard figuring out what time it was at one’s home port.

  9. #9 opendna
    March 5, 2011

    Technics and Civilization (Lewis Mumford) has a chapter on the use of mechanical clocks by monks to organize monastic life. Empire and Communication (Harold Innis) examines the capacity of media of communication to organize life across time and space. Both works span human history in the pre-WWII style.