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Space-Time for Family Historians

By Daniel Hubbard | August 11, 2009

I just gave my talk “Space-Time for Family Historians- Time warps and curved space aren’t just for physicists” for the first time at my local genealogy society meeting (Lake County Illinois Genealogical Society). I had a lot of fun with it and I have to admit that by the time people had finished complimenting me afterward, I felt truly touched.

Having started my adult life as a physicist, I can say that as one learns physics, there comes a point when you stop dealing mostly with the world on a everyday, human scale. You start to learn how the ultrasmall, the supermassive and the superfast give a picture of reality that goes well beyond our normal experience. You start to see the world differently, knowing that the reality you experience in your everyday existence is only the smallest fraction of how the universe actually works. The rules we create for ourselves to understand the world around us, whether through formal mathematics or those simple rules of thumb without which our daily lives would be impossible, do not extend very well to extremes.

The same observations apply, or at least should apply, when you study family history. We don’t normally experience the 18th century or the colony of West Jersey, for example. We organize our understanding of the world using our own time and place. That might be a good starting point but it is dangerous to think that it is enough when trying to understand the past. We take for granted our view of how time and space work but our calendar is often not the calendar that our ancestors used and the “when”, “why”, “how” and even the “where” of changing calendars, and of earlier peoples different ways of experiencing and recording time give nearly infinite opportunities for confusion.

That’s what I tried to do in this talk, let people know that they should be confused- that a date abstracted as “May 1, 1676″ might turn out to be a different day, month and year than what it was claimed to be and only by knowing that can you know to look a little deeper. I have a mission statement for the talk – “Convince you that you don’t know exactly where or when anything really happened.” I hope I convinced people. Sometimes we only think we know the when and the where of those events in the past.

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Topics: Calendars and Clocks, Forgotten History, Genealogy, History, Methods, Time | No Comments »

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