Bones, Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened

ISBN: 1403985995
ISBN 13: 9781403985996
By: Chris Turney

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About this book

Understanding how we pinpoint the past is crucial to putting the present in perspective and planning for the future. Now, for the first time, journalist and geologist Chris Turney explains to the non-specialist exactly how archaeologists, paleontologists, and geologists "tell the time". Each chapter explores one famous event or object from the past, walking readers step by step through the detective work used to determine when things happened. From the Ice Age to the pyramids, from human evolution to the Shroud of Turin, Turney reveals how written records, carbon, pollen, constellations, DNA sequencing, and more all play a part in solving the mystery of the true age of objects and events. As we struggle to manage current environmental threats and conservation troubles, we ignore or misunderstand these techniques and their results at our peril.

Reader's Thoughts


Se trata de un libro que introduce al lector en grandes momentos del pasado y en cómo la ciencia puede ayudarnos a conocer su antigüedad con la mayor exactitud, ya tenga nociones o no en esto de la datación científica.Las preguntas que ofrece son sin duda interesantes: la veracidad de la Sábana Santa, del Rey Arturo, de las grandes extinciones, de la orientación de las pirámides de Keops... La exposición en ese sentido es buena. Donde sin duda el libro se despista bastante es a la hora de meterse en harina: a la hora de explicar los métodos de datación se eleva a un nivel técnico endiablado que no le hace justicia al tono ameno que profesa. A mí estas partes puntuales me han llegado a desmotivar.Sin embargo, si se cogen fuerzas, se le puede dar un intento. Las preguntas quedan respondidas con la mayor precisión que permiten los registros históricos y científicos. En ese sentido, he aprendido bastantes cosas.

David Porter

Surveys pretty much all of the dating discipline, without going into too much detail about any one specific technique. Discusses why dating is important, uncertainties and limitations of each technique, a sampling of controversial theories as a result of different estimated ages, and how dating drives many of the largest disciplines (climatology, astronomy, evolution, anthropology, etc)


Super easy to read, and informative. A great book for anyone who wants a light shined on how different dating methods work. Written by a Brit so all the little allegorical stories are British (one is about a pop song), and all the measurements are metric, which kind of sucks... (how tall is 3 meters?) But other than that its great.


Turney, a geologist, uses case studies to explore how events are dated. Topics such as whether or not the explosion of the volcano on the island of Thera destroyed Minoan Crete, when the Earth originated, whether or not the Shroud of Turin is a forgery, when King Arthur might have lived, and the extinction of the dinosaurs are discussed. The means of dating covered include dendrochronology (tree rings), carbon dating, other radioactive decay sequences such as potssium to argon and argon-argon, and uranium to lead decay. Turney takes the view that a "young earth" (6000 years) creationist viewpoint would require a lot of science to be overturned; in particular it would require the speed of light (in a vacum) to have been changing. The author keeps to prose rather than mathematical formulas, so those without a science background are unlikely to have difficulty in understanding the text.

Steve Van Slyke

I was expecting this to be more about the science behind dating techniques rather than about the events chosen to illustrate the method. However, it is more the reverse. So, for example, the chapter about the Shroud of Turin is more about the history and controversy surrounding the shroud than it is about the the radio-carbon isotope method used to finally accurately date it. And the same was true for the other examples chosen.Be that as it may, it was still an interesting read, although it will be too basic for anyone who has done much reading in science. For example, anyone who has read a book or two on paleoanthropology will find the chapter on dating human origins very basic. Consequently, it is an excellent book for anyone who wants an accessible introduction to many aspects of science seen through the lense of how we have learned to determine how old things really are.Unfortunately the author starts the book off with the least interesting chapter which details how by cross-referencing ancient texts one can assess the probability that King Arthur might have been more than a mythical character. Once you're past that chapter it rolls along at a nice enjoyable pace.This might also be a good choice for young people just starting to seriously explore the fascinating world of science. The science is blended with enough intriguing mysteries to hold their attention,

Todd Martin

An interesting book which delves into the science of 'when' events occurred using techniques such as dendochronology, radiocarbon dating, argon dating, electron spin resonance dating and others. Each chapter covers the dating of a different event including: construction of the Egyptian pyramids, the shroud of Turin, ice ages, and the migration of hominids out of Africa among others. From a readability standpoint I'd have to say that some chapters are far more interesting than others. In fact the first chapter which discusses who King Arthur may have been and when he lived was almost unreadable. I suppose this book could best be described as 'uneven'.Some good information nonetheless and several chapters were quite interesting.


Why time is important as a scientific parameter; how is it measured or estimated? A great book for the interested non-scientist. Explains various ways that time can be measured and the disciplines that use or measure it.

Ben Hammond

I found this book a very accessible and enjoyable account of the many different ways that scientists date ancient objects.


this book is pretty good. trying to ease myself back into an academic mindset. also, if you have any relatives that are younger, like in jr. high or so, i think this would be a good read to spur interest in science or history.highly recommended. absolutely.


A very introductory book on various dating controversies. Good enough for what it is, but not for anyone who's at all familiar with anything scientific. It would be great for kids.


Good overview of different dating techniques for the layperson. I would have liked a little more detail personally, but I would definitely recommend it for non-physicists. My only real quibble was the chapter on King Arthur, which was more about literary criticism than hard science.

Harry Rutherford

Or to give it its fuller, more informative title: Bones Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened. It is what it sounds like: a brief (under 200 pages, including the index) overview of dating technologies for a general audience: radio isotope dating, dendrochronology, Antarctic ice cores and so on. And I enjoyed it; Turney writes well, and he whizzes through the material leaving me feeling a bit better-informed without it being too much like hard work. And I think that's pretty good going for what is a very technical subject.Interestingly he starts with what I don't think of as a 'scientific' technique at all: his first example of dating is an attempt to fix a plausible date for King Arthur by looking at all the different manuscript evidence and trying to coordinate it. This carries all the usual problems of early medieval history: sparse evidence; second, third, fourth-hand accounts written many years after the event; confusions between different calendars and so on. I was slightly surprised by this way of starting the book, but actually it's quite a good way into the subject. Without any of the technical stuff about radioactive isotopes it illustrates the same kind of problems you might have dating a fossil or anything else: trying to reconcile various kinds of data, each of which carries its own particular problems and sources of error.The choice of King Arthur, as opposed to any of the other myriad shadowy early medieval figures, is an indication of his popular instincts: he does like to use colourful examples. So we get the Turin Shroud, the Pyramids, Thera, Java Man. Which is fine by me.So brief, colourful, and not too technical overview of what is really a vast and complex subject, but if that's what you're looking for (and on the whole I think it was), it does a good job of it.


Interesting read. My favorite chapter was about the calendars and how several were developed. There were actual time riots when they took days away. I guess when you don't really live that long or collect taxes or rents, every day counts!

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