“Sundials” is a great introduction to ancient science

A 16th-century sundial in Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.Getty Image

When I tell people at parties that I studied astronomy, I often get the answer: “Oh, astronomy, that sounds interesting to me… but then again, I'm really bad at maths, so I've never looked into that.” Inside.' For those who say that and for the readers who share that sentiment SundialsLook and understand Recommended. It's very accessible astronomy, with no telescope or tests and calculations optional.

Sundials It seems like a book to few people – how important are these old clocks anymore? But whoever picks it up discovers a hidden world of art and history and learns, almost by chance, about the rotation of the celestial spheres.

About the author
Frank Rensen is a science journalist and writes for De Volkskrant About technology.

“In the age of quartz watches and atomic clocks, you might think that sundials would no longer be of interest. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” author Frans Maes wrote on the back cover. This statement seems difficult to defend, but anyone He opens the book with such a smug attitude that he has to admit after just a few pages: Maybe I don't really know what I'm talking about.

Because behind the innocent design of the sundial lies ancient and profound science. Anyone who wants to know where a smartwatch tells the time must delve into electrical engineering and quantum mechanics. Likewise, a sundial designer must first understand how the sun's position in the sky changes with the seasons and how shadows change with distance to the sky. equator.

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A strange kind of science

The ancient study of sundials, also known as gnomonica, is a strange kind of science: there are no bachelor's programs to follow, and no certificates or Nobel prizes to be earned. It's an amateur science, and enthusiasts like Mayes practice it. Their sciences are more free than those at universities, where scholarships awarded by governments and companies determine the course of study. Members of the Dutch Zonnewijzerkring, the publisher of this book, prefer to set their own agenda.

Thus, quite in the spirit of the field of academic research, there is progressive knowledge work: cutting edge Sunglasses whose designs reveal a special kind of genius. A perfect example: the “digital sundial,” a 3D-printed block of plastic with a complex pattern of openings. Depending on the angle of the sun, light penetrates a set of slits, designed to cast a shadow representing the digital time — from sunlight to “5:20 p.m.,” for example, written in shadow.

Mayes shows the reader about fifty types of sundials, from the well-known roof-mounted clocks to sundials built into columns, globes that measure time, or lunar hands, which use moonlight at a full moon to measure time. To indicate the time at night.

Private world

Stylistically, the book is no masterpiece and the design is a bit reminiscent of a museum store, but if you look past that, you will receive a fascinating, comprehensive introduction to the world of a very specific scientific hobby. The first half of the book serves as a crash course in practical astronomy: determining the height of the sun above the horizon, how distance to the equator affects this position and how a sundial can indicate not only the time but also the date. Which the Sun passes through during the year through the constellations (the constellations Cancer, Aries, Taurus, and so on). Through information about sundials, readers automatically pick up all kinds of valuable knowledge about the universe.

In addition, sundials are more than just clocks: they are works of art embedded in the fountains and statues atop Groningen's Martini Tower. No owner with any self-respect would dream of planting a garden without a lavishly decorated sundial. In the final chapters, Mayes discusses the long artistic history of the sundial, perhaps its most notable feature being the 18th-century “noon cannon”: a powerful lens that focuses sunlight onto a small cannon at exactly noon, causing it to ignite and fire. of spaces thus reminding people of the passage of time.

Frans Maes: Sundials – seeing and understanding. Dutch sundial circuit; 160 pages; 27.95 euros. You can order via dezonnewijzerkring.nl

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