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The Age of Everything: How Science Explores the Past.

THE AGE OF EVERYTHING: How Science Explores the Past by Matthew Hedman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 249 pages; index, glossary of terms. Hardcover; $25.00. ISBN: 9780226322926.

This book, based on a series of popular lectures, "explores how researchers in a wide variety of fields determine the ages of things" (p. 2). "It is not intended to provide an exhaustive catalog of every single dating technique." I found this book to be an enjoyable and informative read.

In addition to the introduction, the book is divided into eleven chapters. Some illustrate one primary method of assessing an age of an object or an event. Many, however, demonstrate how one dating procedure can be utilized to constrain another to provide acceptable estimates of age. Thus, for example, historic dates for Egyptian artifacts are utilized to correct radiocarbon ages while in general validating the radiocarbon technique (pp. 63-5).

The overall organization to the book is logical and draws the reader in. The author begins with Maya calendric glyphs, specifically examining the chronology of the ruler of the Mayan city of Calacmul, Yuknoom Ch'een (circa CE 600-686). Hedman then turns his attention to means for dating the Great Pyramids of Egypt (circa 2500 BCE), introducing radiocarbon dating in the process. The next few chapters extend the use of radiocarbon, corrected by tree rings (dendrochronology), back to the late Pleistocene (circa 15,000 BCE). Beyond that point, chapter by chapter, he leapfrogs his prehistoric report by orders of magnitude of years, tackling potassium-argon dating and the ages of fossil hominids, molecular dating and divergence times for mammalian lineages, meteorites and the age of the solar system, and the use of color-magnitude diagrams for assessing ages of collections of stars. Finally, he assesses our evidence for the age of the universe.

My one dissatisfaction with the volume was the general absence of text describing how most of the various dating techniques were originally discovered. TheMayan calendar glyphs, for example, are depicted, translated, and promptly utilized to interpret the life history of Yuknoom Ch'een without any reference to some of the lengthy history of their decipherment by Foerstemann and others. Willard Libby is mentioned in passing but his development of the radiocarbon technique is not narrated. I would have appreciated perhaps two extra pages per chapter, offering a reader the opportunity to understand some of the dynamics of discovery for many of these methods. Some readers more inclined to skepticism might thus suspiciously ask questions like, "how can we trust these translations of the Mayan characters?" To Hedman's credit, he includes avenues for further reading at the end of each chapter, and these include sources for investigating the histories of the various techniques.

Based as it is on a series of lectures, the book is written in a straightforward, unpretentious, and friendly style. Sources of error in dates are plainly outlined, as well as means for assessing confidence in a technique or a particular chronology. Each particular case discussed is intriguing in its own right.

I think the book should appeal to many kinds of potential readers. Compiling cases from many different fields has yielded an overview that will retain the interest of most scientists and students. The writing style will permit the nonscientist to grasp the principles for many of these techniques. The book is recommended.

Reviewed by Ralph Stearley, Professor of Geology, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI 49546.
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Author:Stearley, Ralph
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2008
Words:566
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