Friday, July 28, 2023

Book Review: The Universal Time Keepers by David J. Helfand

 I read this incredibly interesting and insightful book about dating. No, no, no, it's not about the romantic kind of dating, but the carbon dating kind. This book is about the methods that can put a precise date on past events. I would absolutely love to try it with some ancient artefacts in my refrigerator. Now, that's one way to put technology to a practically useful and potentially lifesaving purpose.

The Universal Time Keepers is an upcoming popular science book by David J. Helfand that describes how atoms, who are witnesses and even participants in every event played out in every place and time of our universe, can be put to use for tracking these events and finding out when and how they happened. I received this ebook from Netgalley and its publisher, Columbia University Press, in exchange for honest feedback.

Carbon dating is a popular concept that is pushed through movies, books, media, and social media so much that a layman's concept of it is that of something magical. You take a piece of stone, keep it in front of a chunk of carbon, like a piece of charcoal or something, chant abracadabra, and the antiquity of the stone magically gets written on it. Pseudoarcheologists and pseudohistorians have played a good part in abusing carbon dating by making wrong and misrepresented attributions to the technology, just like they do with genome mapping.

This book describes the workings of several dating technologies, like carbon dating, that utilise the atomic properties of materials to decipher the age and other details of an event. Though the subject matter is very technical and requires a basic understanding of chemistry, physics, and a bit of biology to fully comprehend its nitty-gritty, Helfand makes sure that the layman reader is not too confused or bogged down while reading the book. His description is elementary enough to sustain the reader's interest, though he never succumbs to the temptation to dump it down to a level that trivialises its implications.

Atoms are infinitesimally minute particles that constitute matter, just next to nothingness as far as our ability to detect them is concerned. They are made up of even smaller subatomic particles like protons, electrons, neutrons, and a lot more of them. Each element in the universe possesses an atom that is unique to it, though there are different flavours available among the atoms of a single element, called isotopes. Many of these isotopes tend to be unstable, with lifespans ranging from fractions of a second to billions of years.

Their instability is due to a phenomenon called radioactivity, which is essentially a tendency to achieve stability by transforming itself into other elements by ejecting subatomic particles and energy. This radioactive decay of atoms is measured in half lives—half the measure of a radioactive material decays into its daughter in a prescribed, exact amount of time. It is this property that is used for dating an event as recent as the last day to minutes before the Big Bang, the event that started our universe.

The first six chapters of the book explain the chemistry of the procedures. These chapters take you to your high school classrooms and make you relive the horrors of the periodic table, atomic numbers, and chemical reactions. The difference is that this time the explanations are more intelligible and crystal clear. Once this formality is over, the remaining chapters discuss the practical implementation of using isotopes of different elements like Carbon, Uranium, and lead for the determination of age.

The first one is about detecting art forgeries by ionising the atoms inside a painting and determining if the components used in it are consistent with the ones that the artist used in his time. The subsequent chapters progressively deliberate the procedures used to determine several events in history after and before humanity managed to civilise. It starts with the inspections done on a parchment of the Quran and ends in a moment one microsecond after the formation of the universe. It elucidates how comparing the numbers of radioactive father and daughter elements in a sample of rock, a dead body, or a piece of ice can solve perplexing puzzles and provide unique insights into the workings of the world that we live in.

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