A brief history of the history of timekeeping

We take for granted that things are as they should be often without understanding why. Clock hands move “Clockwise” because they followed sundials. If human civilizations had developed primarily in the Southern Hemisphere, “clockwise” would be in the opposite direction.

Do you ever wonder why there are 60 seconds to a minute and 60 minutes to an hour? Blame the Babylonians. They loved the number 60 and used it as a base for their mathematics. There are many theories as to why the Babylonians liked 60, but the most plausible is that 60 is a useful number that can be divided by many others like 1,2,3,4,5, and 6 (and the Babylonians didn’t use fractions). That’s why there are also 6X60=360 degrees in a circle.

The single greatest development in time-keeping was the pendulum. Galileo was said to have thought of it on seeing the periodic motion of an incense bowl in the nave of a monastery. Though Huygens was the first to apply it to clocks.

Before train travel become common in the mid-1800s there was no concept of standardized time. Every town decided it’s own time based on the position of the sun, and kept an official clock.

In Bangla, we use “muhurta” quite differently from its original meaning, roughly corresponding to 48 minutes of standard time. We use it synonymously with “palak”, the time for the blink of an eyelid!

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Faraday and the Royal Society

A bookbinder’s apprentice got enthralled by a volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica and a slim book of chemistry written for English ladies of the day. He then went on to change the course of history by developing the basic principles that power all of modern society.

More than anyone else, Michael Faraday was the “purest” experimental scientist. He’s the reason why we have practical applications for electricity.

In Faraday’s time, there were only around 100 professional scientists in England, but each was a giant. Everyone wanted to be a member of the Royal Society and hang out there. Among other things, the Royal Society published the first scientific journal. Some of the most epic feuds of all time (in science at least) happened at the Royal Society- Newton vs. Hooke; Faraday vs. Davy. Think about it: the guy who coined the most important term in biology, “cell” vs. the father of modern physics; the guy who was one of the greatest chemists of all time vs. the guy who made electricity practical for humanity…

And these guys hated each other on a personal level!

Climate change and a horror story

Here is a fantastic, nearly implausible story about how climate change in the early 1800s lead to one of the most iconic horror stories in history.

The year 1816, was known throughout Europe as “the Year Without a Summer”. There was snow in June and July and massive food shortages. Overall, there were drastic weather changes globally. The cause of the summerless 1816, was the massive eruption of the volcano Mt Tambora in 1815, on the Indonesian island of Sambawa. This was the largest volcanic eruption in human history. For reference, the eruption of Mt. Tambora was 1,000 times greater than the eruption of the impossible to pronounce volcano that caused travel disruptions in Iceland in 2010! At least 70,000 died immediately from the eruption of Mt. Tambora and ~200,000 the following year.

Fast forward to 1816. To escape the dreary weather back in London, a young group of poets decided to go to Switzerland. On Lake Geneva, they encountered major thunderstorms due to volcano-induced climate change, and were forced to stay indoors and tell ghost stories.

As it happens, during one of these thunderstorms one of these poets (Lord Byron) asked the rest of the group to write ghost stories. Present in Geneva that evening were PB Shelley and Mary Godwin (later Shelley).

In Geneva, Mary Godwin conceived the story we now know as Frankenstein.

Climate change created Frankenstein, literally!