Monday, September 29, 2008

The Corpus Clock

I'm fascinated by the new "Corpus Clock" unveiled a short time ago by Stephen Hawking in Britain. Lisa Jardine reports for the BBC:

A week ago I was invited to attend the inauguration of a modern marvel of chronological invention, which was officially dedicated to the memory of the largely forgotten John Harrison. On a bright, sunlit autumnal evening, a sizeable crowd gathered on the corner of King's Parade and Benet Street in Cambridge to watch Stephen Hawking - appropriately, our greatest living theoretical exponent of time - unveil the "Corpus Clock", the brainchild of an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College.

This extraordinary, entirely mechanical chronophage or "time-eater" has neither hands nor numerals to display the time. Instead, above a glittering two-metre diameter gold-plated disk, a huge, jaw-snapping, rolling-eyed mechanical grasshopper rocks back and forth, apparently munching successive notches of the revolving dials with every passing second.

Its movement triggers blue lights that dart across the clock face, registering the seconds and minutes as they pass. Each hour is signalled by a race of blue lights and the rattle of a chain dropping into an unseen coffin to remind passers-by of their mortality. Occasionally the pendulum hesitates to remind us that our perception of the march of time is subjective.

The clock's inventor said at the unveiling he "wanted to make timekeeping interesting", by turning the clock inside out "so you can see the seconds being eaten up" - literally by what is in fact a gigantic grasshopper escapement.

Standing modestly to one side during last week's ceremony was the man who invented and executed the clock. Unlike the author of A Brief History of Time, I can almost guarantee listeners have never heard of him. Yet Dr John C Taylor was introduced to the onlookers as "one of this country's greatest inventors" - and so he is.

The rather considerable fortune which has enabled John Taylor not only to provide the £1m the extraordinary clock eventually cost, but also the millions to turn the former bank building which houses it into a brand new undergraduate library for his old college (and I might add, educational bursaries including one held by a research student at my own institution), was accumulated as a result of a more humdrum invention, but one which is now so ubiquitous that we all of us depend on it.

It was he who perfected the kettle thermostat, the bimetallic strip which ensures our kettle switches off once it has boiled merrily for a few seconds, rather than boiling dry. This simple, elegant little invention is used globally in a wide variety of thermostatically controlled domestic electrical appliances. It is hard to imagine how we would do without it. Why, then, does his name not figure on honours boards across the British Isles?

Clocks are only one among a roll-call of instruments and appliances perfected by technical wizards over the centuries. Precision instruments are essential for testing the hypotheses of the very theoretical science which disparages the achievements of the inventors and technicians who designed and made them. No experimental science would be possible without clocks capable of measuring tiny increments of time.

Inventors like John Taylor turn the breakthroughs made by theoretical science into the applied benefits we see all around us. His company's website lists among their achievements not just corded and cordless kettles, but under-floor heating with a cordless connector and a new coating to make kettles boil less noisily.

Perhaps if our society were more ready to celebrate those who are ingenious, or "good with their hands", and produce the inventions that allow us to lead comfortable daily lives, we would all become genuinely interested in the science that underpins the kettle and the clock. Perhaps more of our children would then decide to make science their specialist study at school and university.

But in order for that to happen theoretical scientists in their laboratories and universities have themselves to be prepared to acknowledge the importance of engineers, inventors and technicians of all kinds, so that their achievements are celebrated as they deserve, and their names trip as easily off our tongues as those of Einstein and Newton.

The last two paragraphs are very important. So much science is theoretical, rather than practical. Sure, it eventually carries over into practical devices, but many scientists still disdain the "practicality" of engineers and technicians, preferring the "pure science" of the laboratory. That's one reason why the economies of so many other countries are based on copying Western inventions rather than developing their own. Those countries aren't afraid to direct their students into more practical applications of science, such as reverse-engineering others' inventions and learning how to produce them faster, cheaper and in greater quantity. Sure, their creativity may suffer - but their economies are booming.

Methinks we need a dash of commercialism to season the otherwise immaculate purity of our science classrooms . . .


1 comment:

Gewehr98 said...

I would kill for my own working model of Harrison's H1, H2, or H3 sea clocks.