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It’s entirely possible to read a book with both great appreciation and a good deal of exasperation. Case in point: David J. Helfand’s The Universal Timekeepers: Reconstructing History Atom by Atom. Helfand, we’re told, formerly chaired Columbia University’s Astronomy Department and has taught there for almost fifty years. More: “He was also president and chancellor of Quest University in Canada. Helfand is the chair of the American Institute of Physics and past president of the American Astronomical Society.” On top of all that, he has written for a wide range of non-scholarly publications.

Why do I list all this? To get across the point that Helfand is not merely well-accredited; he is at the peak of his scholarly profession and he has a passion to communicate his knowledge (and his opinions) to a wide audience. It’s clear from the first pages of this book that he enjoys doing so; there’s a palpable relish as he sets out, in his first sentences, to get through our heads both the almost unimaginable tininess of atoms (“They are 99.9999999999995% empty space”) and the similarly mind-boggling range of knowledge they can impart to the trained observer, thanks to their “remarkable stability and the unique signatures each provides.” 

How does this play out in practice? It may involve (for instance) the dating of churches and a Franciscan monastery on the Aland Islands, off the coast of Finland, thought to have been built around A.D. 1450. In the 1980s, Helfand tells us, an archaeologist and a physicist, working together and drawing on the resources of the radiocarbon laboratory at the University of Helsinki, were able to show that the actual date of construction was roughly 1280. In another example, Carbon dating (Helfand capitalizes the names of the elements throughout) tells us that the earliest known scenes painted on cave walls can be found in Indonesia (rather than Europe), dating to more than 40,000 years ago. (Claims have been made that some cave paintings in Europe were done even earlier, but those claims have not achieved scholarly consensus.) The evolution of the human diet over the centuries, “forensic art history,” dating the death of dinosaurs and determining its primary cause—these and many other subjects are illumined. And of course such studies can reach much further into the past: “As our atomic clocks will reveal . . . ,” Helfand writes, “the Earth is 4.567 billion years old.”

But even as the reader (this reader, at any rate) is fired with enthusiasm for the exposition to come, there are also, from the outset, head-slapping exercises in hyperbole: “With our exquisite understanding of atomic structure and its many variations,” Helfand writes on page 5, “we can, quite literally, reconstruct history atom by atom.” No, we can’t, and the jaw-dropping effrontery of such a claim is not a rare lapse but a habitual attitude; at the top of page 8, we encounter this assertion: “You are literally what you eat.” No, you aren’t; no, I’m not (neither is Helfand). Perhaps in part these outlandish statements are intended as pushback to the tendency to over-emphasize human affairs, empires and their fall, kings and queens, wars and revolutions, elections, and all that, even as modified by recent emphases in historical scholarship. 

If so, the “corrective” is ill-conceived. But in his chapter “History Without Words” (more rhetorical overkill), Helfand does swoop down to consider, for instance, the dating of stone churches and a Franciscan monastery located on the Aland Islands, off Finland, as well as the earliest human “artistic creations,” the evolution of stone tools, and “Dating Poop.”

So be prepared for a wild ride, one well worth taking. If, like me, you use Post-it Notes, your copy of Helfand’s book will be a thicket of brightly colored markers. Surely you will flag, as I did, the wonderful paragraph that begins a section subheaded “Imperturbable Clocks”:

The reason radio isotopes are so useful in discovering things about the past is that their decay rates are almost completely imperturbable. You can pour acid on a sample of Uranium, heat it to a million degrees, freeze it to near absolute zero, place it in a strong electric or magnetic field, run over it with a tank—whatever you like, and you will not change the half-life by one iota. Such reliable timepieces are hard to find anywhere else in nature or in our technology.

Indeed. Quite wonderful, and there are many such resonant and purely enjoyable passages in Helfand’s book. But note an important detail here. Timepieces, however accurate (or unreliable), do not possess agency. What about “timekeepers,” though? Again and again, Helfand uses language and framing devices that attribute agency to atoms (while also employing language that does not). This is not a “mistake”; it’s a deliberate rhetorical strategy, just as the habitual hyperbole noted above cannot be brushed aside by saying, well, he’s fired by enthusiasm for his subject, we shouldn’t make too much of that.

I finished Helfand’s book in awe not only of his learning, but also the whole enterprise of science that his book represents. And, in a small but not insignificant way, I see the world—the whole shebang, in fact, and not just our little part of it—differently thanks to Helfand. Much of what he writes, of course, demands far (far!) more knowledge than I possess to fully grasp and evaluate, but “general readers” like me are his primary audience. “It is likely here,” he writes in his last chapter, imagining a primal universe “the size of a large star,” that “the mysterious asymmetry between matter and antimatter unfolds, giving us the stuff out of which everything is made.” In bed one night with that resonant passage in mind, I said the Lord’s Prayer with Wendy after we turned off the light, following our usual practice. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” 

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books

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Image by NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI) licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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