Clock of Ages, Brian Hayes

GTiBcoverAs a mathematics professor, I am always eager to find new and interesting stories and ideas to pass along to students. “Pythagoras and the Hammers”, “The Death of Archimedes”, and “The Calculus Debate” are some favorites among others. In the continued search (and with the help of a gift card) I stumbled upon “Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions” by Brian Hayes, a collection of essays and lectures discussing various mathematical topics. Randomness, genetic codes, and obviously group theory take their turn in Hayes’ spotlight, and I am confident that they will make some great anecdotes in the future.

However, I want to focus on Hayes’ first, a detailing of the astronomical clock of Strasburg Cathedral, a mechanical masterpiece of gears and levers that… well… does what clocks do: keeps time. However, the Strasburg clock does a little more. Hayes states that “a celestial globe in front of the main cabinet tracks the positions of five thousand stars, while a device much like an orrery models the motions of the six inner planets.” Additionally, the clock tracks the sidereal day (the “true day” that is 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.0905324 seconds), the mean solar time (24 hours), leap years, and phases of the moon.

Impressively, the clock, without human assistance and through a system of sliding brass and clanking teeth, can correctly calculate the days of the Catholic religious calendar. That is, if the Strasburg clock is properly maintained (replacing broken gears and whatnot), the clock can calculate what date Easter will fall on in 2074. Even more impressively, this clock contains no electronics and has been running since 1842. Truly this is the clock of ages, designed to measure eternity as its developer intended.

Hayes mentions a new movement to mimic this clock known as the Long Now group who wish to design a clock of their own that can run for the next 10,000 years. Upon reading  this, I felt a little disoriented trying to imagine the Earth and its inhabitants 10,000 years from now. How can we even begin to imagine the culture, language, and technology? Will we even be here? How can anything we have developed now be of any practical use then? But that’s not the point. The developer of Strasburg clock, and now the Long Now group, hoped to not just build impressive structures or to provide any technological advances for the future. Rather they are here to remind us that the future is a worthy investment.

I remember my professor in a New Testament survey course detailing how the Apostle Paul let the Thessalonians have it because of their poor work ethic. The Thessalonians thought Christ was returning soon, and so there was no reason to go to work or educate children. The future was vacant, and so we had one of the original YOLO moments. That attitude still exists today.

I am all about carpe diem. Let’s seize the day for sure. Time is a resource we must all spend, and wisdom says to use it all to its potential. May we always look to the present. However, as I sit on my couch in Jackson, I am also looking towards a structure of spinning gears in Strasburg. Even now, there is a reminder of mechanical brass turning, whirring, sliding, and clanking reminding us that though the present is in our grasp, the future needs us. The future is our responsibility. Carpe postremo, seize the future!


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