Friday, October 2, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here's a brand new Dark Roasted Blend piece on keeping very special time: beautiful astronomical clocks and such.

Because that’s what everything was to them, many believe early man saw the universe as a living thing. Each flash of lightning, every star in the sky, the rain that fell, the ground beneath their feet – everything around them was part of some huge, living and breathing creature.

But then that changed. The Greeks, and their intellectual ancestors, looked at the world and while they saw life they also began to see a mechanism to it all, a precise and ordered regularity.

Alhough we know the ancient Greeks were extremely intelligent, just how smart was hinted at in 1901 – and then confirmed many yearsnlater. At first the hunk of rusted iron that was pulled from the sean near the African island of Antikythera was just a curiosity, a bitmof archeological weirdness. It was only decades and decades later that modern science was finally able to pry apart the secrets of ancient science. Very, very ancient science.

The Antikythera device, as it’s called, is a meticulous and precise assembly of 72 gears – a simply staggering work of craftsmanship.nWhat’s even more astounding is that scientists think the device wasman astronomical calculator: an elaborate, incredibly accurate computer that was built in 150 to 100BC.

What’s even more chilling -- as well as exciting – isn’t that the Antikythera devicemexisted but that it could very wellmbe the first hint at how technologically advanced the ancient workmengineers were. The device is certainly miraculous but it was also a common working machine; not a rarity but instead what could be something that navigators used everyday. Who knows what other mechanisms and devices have yet to be found?

A few hundred years later the universe was still a mechanical place but the engineering that went into creating machines to predict and understand it became even more complicated and elaborate. Clocks got a shot in their developmental arm because they – when used with star charts and sextants – were essential navigation tools. It wasn’t long until clock mechanisms were used to track not just the hours, minutes and seconds of commerce and shipping but also the stars and planets in the sky.

One of the more incredible astronomical clocks – and there arem certainly a lot of very incredible examples of such things – is the legendary Prague Astronomical Clock. To say that it’s elaborate would be a ridiculous understatement. The clock is an insanely complicated instrument to not only tell the time but also to track the movements of the stars and planets – at least the ones they knew about in the 1400s when the clock was built. It's easy to think that making something as complicated as the Prague clock was a one time, supremely rare thing. Although the clock wasn’t a common working gizmo like the Antikythera device, it also used technology and craftsmanship that existed in many other Medieval cities – and even, a century or so later, insanely miniaturized to the point where, if you were rich, you could carry what was basically a tiny version in your pocket.

While complicated, one of the greatest things about the Prague clock is that it isn’t just a working clock; it almost deserves to be called a monumental kinetic sculpture. It ticks and tocks and ticks its tocks in ways, to quote from the Bible, that are “a wonder to behold.” So wondrous, in fact, that you can find computer models online demonstrating just how elegant and beautiful the mechanism is – which says a lot that we use 21st century technology to appreciate the skill of a 1400 clock maker.

Another beautiful example of astronomical clock engineering is the famous Wells Cathedral clock. Begun a few years before Prague’s, the clock is another accurate and heavenly (literally as well as figuratively) mechanism. Like its Prague kin, the clock is a beautiful as well as accurate view of the world as an enormous clockwork machine, a carefully assembled, meticulously crafted, creation.

Unfortunately, the growing ubiquitousness of these clocks’ technology spelled their doom. As more and more people could afford to carry watches there was less and less of a need for a huge, central – and, naturally, elaborate, town hall clock. It simply didn’t make financial sense to keep building them – which is a sign that humanity's growing, view of the world was mechanical: tocks and tocks as well as dollars and sense.

What’s ironic is that with the coming of the 21st century – and, living in a world ruled by the careful calculations of software -- humans are starting to understand, and even plan to use, the uncertainty of a quantum universe: an existence where things are never quite what they seem and chaos is part of How Everything Works.

Still, the incredible Antikythera device, the Prague and Wells Cathedral clocks, are beautiful in their antique mechanisms – as well as the nostalgia of when the world was as precise and orderly as the back and forth swing of a pendulum.

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