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A Natural History of Time

The quest to pinpoint the age of the Earth is nearly as old as humanity itself. For most of history, people trusted mythology or religion to provide the answer, even though nature abounds with clues to the past of the Earth and the stars. In A Natural History of Time, geophysicist Pascal Richet tells the fascinating story of how scientists and philosophers examined those clues and from them built a chronological scale that has made it possible to reconstruct the history of nature itself.

Richet begins his story with mythological traditions, which were heavily influenced by the seasons and almost uniformly viewed time cyclically. The linear history promulgated by Judaism, with its story of creation, was an exception, and it was that tradition that drove early Christian attempts to date the Earth. For instance, in 169 CE, the bishop of Antioch, for instance declared that the world had been in existence for “5,698 years and the odd months and days.”

Until the mid-eighteenth century, such natural timescales derived from biblical chronologies prevailed, but, Richet demonstrates, with the Scientific Revolution geological and astronomical evidence for much longer timescales began to accumulate. Fossils and the developing science of geology provided compelling evidence for periods of millions and millions of years—a scale that even scientists had difficulty grasping. By the end of the twentieth century, new tools such as radiometric dating had demonstrated that the solar system is four and a half billion years old, and the universe itself about twice that, though controversial questions remain.

The quest for time is a story of ingenuity and determination, and like a geologist, Pascal Richet carefully peels back the strata of that history, giving us a chance to marvel at each layer and truly appreciate how far our knowledge—and our planet—have come.

481 pages | 12 halftones, 27 line drawings, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Biological Sciences: Natural History, Paleobiology, Geology, and Paleontology

Earth Sciences: General Earth Sciences

History of Science


"Geology and natural science buffs will discover a rich, baroquely embellished birthday cake to dig into and enjoy."

Publishers Weekly

"Not only does A Natural History of Time shed light on key advances in the history of science, from the ancient Greeks to the X-ray, it reminds us of the real heroism and nobility of the scientific enterprise. Today, science and technology have advanced to such a point that we tend to think mainly about their dangers—nuclear weapons, global warming, cloning. Yet our lives are supported by an immense edifice of scientific ingenuity, which we seldom understand or even think about. Mr. Richet reminds us that each acre of the continent of modern science was won back from an ocean of ignorance, by the hard work and intellectual courage of individuals."

Adam Kirsch | New York Sun

"Richet’s real interest isn’t time. It is age. Like many of his characters, he is down with a ’fever of chronology.’ He is fascinated by every speculation in the entire history of Western thought that bears upon the question of the Earth’s antiquity. The wonderful thing is that he succeeds in changing what might have been dry recitation into an almost Dickensian world of characters in conflict and in love."

William Bryant Logan | Globe and Mail

"This is one of those books that provides a refreshing shift in the way we look at things we take for granted, something all good storytelling does."

Robert Birnbaum | Book Digest

"If you want to know the real story behind the deciphering of the age of our planet, A Natural History of Time is the definitive account."

Lynne M. Clos | Fossil News

"A satisfying and easy read as well as an approach to the telling of a fascinating story that I have not encountered in any other book. . . . A book that even readers with only a modest understanding of science will find easy to read, yet which is rich enough in its narrative to satisfy even the most knowledgeable specialist."

G. Brent Dalrymple | Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"The story of how the age of the earth was determined is a marvellous concatenation of red herrings and presuppositions from which the truth eventually emerges. . . . I cannot imagine a better attempt at such a broad sweep through science and history. . . . Richet’s natural history is—dare I say it?—timely."

Richard A. Fortey | TLS

"Precisely because the current well-grounded chronology seems so natural to most scientifically literate people, Richet’s authoritative review of Earth’s history is particularly welcome."

Laurence A. Marschall | Natural History

"A rich, wide-ranging, and authoritative history, well-spiced anecdote . . . and welcome flashes of humor."

David Toomey | The Historian

"I can strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of science."

Stephen G. Brush | Journal for the History of Astronomy

"A Natural History of Time is the outcome of a remarkable effort. The reader is provided with historical background and with a tremendous wealth of information on a topic that raised cultural and religious problems throughout the centuries."

Ivano Del Prete | Nuncius

Table of Contents


1          Time without a Beginning?
2          On the Great Book of Moses
3          Genesis as Viewed through the Prism of Natural Philosophy
4          Nature’s Admirable Medals
5          The March of the Comets
6          Heroic Age, Relative Time
7          The Long History of Two Barons
8          The Elasticity of Time
9          The Pandora’s Box of Physics
10         The Sun, the Earth, Radioactivity--and Kelvin’s Death
11         The Long Quest of Arthur Holmes
12         From the Atomic Bomb to the Age of the Earth

Appendix: Mathematical Complements

Source Notes
Suggestions for Further Reading


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