Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps

book cover

Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps

Einstein’s Clocks, Poincarés Maps: Empires of Time, Peter Galison

This is the type of book I’m often attracted to.  A nonfiction book for nonexperts, delving into a common part of our lives and looking at how it came to be.  For this book, Peter Galison examines modern time keeping.  Defining time, measuring time, and synchronizing time are actually all quite difficult.  And, until recently, rather unnecessary.  We’re all so obsessed with time, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, that it seems natural and proper to be so.  Really, though, it doesn’t matter much if something starts at 8:15 or at 8:15-ish.  Or it didn’t, at least, until we all started traveling so much.

Clocks and maps are actually quite integrated and essential to one another.  The first real effort to accurately measure time came from the search for longitude.  When people began sailing across the seas, in a very real way, your clock was your map.  While determining latitude is relatively easy with math, by measuring the angle of the north star and the horizon, longitude can only be measured by determining the exact time of where you are and where you were.  You need a clock that’s keeping perfect time to show when noon is in, say, London, and then to compare how far off it is from noon where you are now.  If your clock is off by several minutes, in your navigation you might end up off by days.   Getting accurate enough clocks to measure longitude proved to be incredibly difficult.  For a really excellent and engaging discussion of how this was finally solved, and the stakes involved, I highly recommend Dava Sobel’s Longitude.  I also recommend her book Galileo’s Daughter, although it doesn’t have much to do with clocks.  I just think she’s an excellent writer.

Back to the subject matter at hand, Einstein’s clocks goes further, delving into how to make hyperaccurate clocks, and how to synchronize them.  Here, the problem is the opposite.  In order to synchronize clocks that are an ocean away, you need a map and to know where those clocks are.  You can send a telegraph signal from, say, Washington, DC to Paris or London.  But then in order to ensure the clocks are accurate, you need to know how fast the signal was traveling, and how far exactly it traveled, or else your clocks will be off.  Often by a matter of seconds, but during a time of rationalism ushered in by democratic and industrial revolutions, measuring things exactly was proof of our civilization.

And then, of course, there were the railroads, the reason we really did need to have our timekeeping be quite exact.  Perhaps it didn’t matter so much whether the clocks in Washington and Paris were perfectly synchronized.  But it certainly mattered whether DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco were all the same so that the train schedule didn’t get fouled up and trains didn’t run into each other.  While the times were being standardized, an amazing amount of political wrangling, civic pride, and the usual resistance to change, came into play, with arguments over which city would get to decide the time, which country would have the prime meridian and set the standards, who would be in charge of keeping the official worldwide time* (Paris, at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, also the organization responsible for preserving the “official” meter, gram, liter, etc.).

So the subject is interesting, and the book is full of random and interesting facts, and dives into obscure things like the Metre Convention, where the international treaty was signed that put the metric system into place, and that Poincaré was part of a group that wanted to have metric time as well.  It ended up being pretty much the only thing we measure that kept the old measurements by everyone partly because England and the U.S. had a lot more regions of the world where they could insist on using the British rather than the French system.

Unfortunately, though, while I enjoyed what I learned, the book just didn’t click for me.  I ended up feeling like I was slogging through the thing, rather than sponging up new information.  A lot of the speculative bits about Einstein’s or Poincaré’s lives and their inspiration felt a bit shoehorned in.  I’ve read a few other reviews from folks who loved the book, although primarily from academics, so perhaps it’s a matter of this author and this reader just not clicking, but I wasn’t eager to look for other of his books, and ended up feeling more relieved than energized or enlightened after finishing it.  A shame, really, but there you are.

So my final review: all in all, very informative, but not perhaps not the most entertaining way to get the information.  Maybe read Longitude instead.

*Naturally, if I ended up responsible for the Coordinated Universal Time^ I would insist that everyone called me the Time Lord and probably lose all my friends in short order.

^Although I really have no idea what the qualifications are for that sort of job.  I feel like there are a lot of careers out there that my guidance counselors and the ridiculous career aptitude test I took in high school forgot to mention.


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