An drawing of an atom with a small scientist on one of the atom's paths

Unlocking the secrets of the atom has allowed mankind to realize wonders, and horrors, that our forebears never thought to imagine. Atoms constitute a relatively small amount of material but contain enough hidden power to either light a city or level it, and the 20th century saw atomic theory unleash outsized spectacle. But when considered in the opposite direction, from a mushroom cloud down into the mind-bendingly small scale of the electron and the quark, atoms can provide knowledge in addition to power.

In The Universal Timekeepers, David J. Helfand ’72, former chair of the astronomy department at Columbia University, gives us a tour of the atom not as a destroyer, but as a detective that can help us unravel mysteries as wide-ranging as art forgeries, the provenance of ancient temples and the death of the dinosaurs. Scientists, he writes, can “build a detailed, testable, and falsifiable model with enormous predictive power, allowing us to enlist atoms in our quest to reconstruct history.”

Unstitching the fabric of history is a daunting task. But the opening sections of the book ease us in with a lively atomic refresher on concepts that a general readership (this book’s audience) might vaguely recall from high school. Many of these concepts, under such chapter headings as “The Elements: Our Complete Set of Blocks” and “Isotopes: Elemental Flavors” resist brief summarization. And this reviewer is hesitant to hazard a distillation, lest I fail my quiz.

But Helfand pitches his presentation skillfully down the middle. Readers can engage at the generalist level and gain a rough appreciation of the matters at hand, or break out their notebooks and pay extra attention to the graphs, charts and tables to gain a second-order mastery and appreciation for equations that relate to, for example, the half-life of magnesium.

After establishing the rules of the atom, Helfand puts the rules to work. A sampling: Proton-induced X-ray emission (PIXIE) testing can be harnessed to impose chronological order on Galileo’s scattered notes about how he shaped his theory of motion, by analyzing the different mixtures of elements in the ink he used. A process called thermoluminescence can be deployed to confirm an astonishingly early construction date for the mysterious stone monasteries of the Åland Islands off of Finland. And by analyzing the type of carbon detected in the bones of Indigenous skeletons, we can track the development of corn across the precolonial Americas.

As Helfand gives us more and more examples of how atoms can elucidate the universe, we are left with an impression that their explanatory power is essentially limitless. Perhaps ironically, as this science has developed, it approaches something like religion: an unseeable force that undergirds all of creation and has its hand in everything. And perhaps it is the fate of theology and science to converge, rather than drift apart like cooling stars at the edge of creation.

Mancusi is the author of the novel A Philosophy of Ruin.

Illustration by Ard Su