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Review - Bones, Rocks & Stars - Chris Turney

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This is the kind of book that some people will find fascinating, and others dull. If your interest in science overlaps with an enjoyment of history (as I admit it does for me) - if, for example, archaeology excites you - this will be a delight. Chris Turney explores "the science of when things happened" - in other words, the use of scientific methods to work out how old something is, or when it occurred. Of course, if history makes you yawn, this is less attractive stuff.

On the whole it works well, giving Turney the opportunity to string together some fascinatingly different quests into history, using all the tools available to the archaeologist and the researcher. After venturing into a whirlwind trip through the background to the calendar (see David Ewing Duncan's The Calendar for much more detail), Turney takes us through everything from the dating of King Arthur (if he ever existed) and the Turin shroud to the ice ages and the catastrophe that killed off the dinosaurs. Along the way, particularly at the beginning and end of the book, there are also tirades against creationism. This might seem out of place - this isn't a book on philosophy of science or religion, but Turney has an excellent reason for doing this, as the literal creationists who believe the world was created around 6,000 years ago would deny practically everything he covers in the book.

The reason I can't go beyond three stars on this one is there is just too much detail on dating techniques. Of course it's important to understand just how something like radiocarbon dating works, but by the time you've got through a dozen techniques - sometimes one after another in the text - it all gets a bit tedious. It might have been better to have cut this down and to have thrown in another chapter instead.

There were also a couple of points of minor irritation. Turney gets at poor old Katy Melua for her 2005 song "Nine Million Bicycles" in which she says "We are 12 billion light years from the edge. That's a guess. No one can ever say it's true." Now apart from the breaking butterflies on the wheel idiocy of attacking song lyrics, Turney gets his attack a little off beam. He comments that "the most recent age estimate for our Universe was reported in 2003, with the start of time at 13.7+/-0.2 billion years ago - all based on the background microwave fluctuations that are a hangover from the big bang; nothing do with a guess..." First he's confusing age and size. The age of the universe doesn't tell us how big it is, just how far we can see. (Okay, Melua got the number wrong, but hey.) And, to be honest, most cosmology is little more than informed guess. We don't even know for certain there was such a thing as a big bang, the ageing is based on very indirect observation and frankly, yes, it is all a guess. A good guess. Our present best guess. But a guess.

Turney also doesn't necessarily hit the nail on the head with the pyramids, either. He laughs at earlier ideas of what the pyramids were, remarking that "in these more enlightened days" we now know they were built as tombs. Do we really? Although many archaeologists might not be 100% behind Robert Bauval's full argument (see The Egypt Code), it does seem to be widely accepted that the function of the pyramids was primarily as stellar "mechanisms" rather than the secondary use as tombs. Even so, most of the sections of the book are genuinely fascinating to those who enjoy an academic fact hunt. A really different and stimulating idea for a book.

Only in hardback.

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007