Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Stephen Hawking and
the passing of time
in a Cambridge clock

The grasshopper on the Chronophage or ‘Time Eater’ at Corpus Christi ... the clock is accurate only once every five minutes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The news this morning of the death of Stephen Hawking immediately brought to my mind images of the Corpus Clock, the large sculptural clock the Cambridge physicist unveiled ten years ago in 2008 at the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College.

The clock is on the corner of Bene’t Street and Trumpington Street in Cambridge, looking out onto King’s Parade. I am familiar with this clock, as Saint Bene’t’s Church nearby has effectively been my parish church whenever I have been staying at Sidney Sussex College.

The clock was conceived and funded by John C Taylor, an old member of Corpus Christi College, and was officially unveiled to the public by Stephen Hawking on 19 September 2008.

The clock’s face is a rippling 24-carat gold-plated stainless steel disc, about 1.5 metres in diameter. It has no hands or numerals, but displays the time by opening individual slits in the clock face backlit with blue LEDs. These slits are arranged in three concentric rings displaying hours, minutes, and seconds.

The dominating visual feature of the clock is a grim-looking metal sculpture of an insect type of creature that looks like to a grasshopper or locust.

John Taylor has called this grasshopper the Chronophage or ‘time eater,’ from the Greek χρόνος (chronos, time) and εφάγον (ephagon, I ate). It moves its mouth, appearing to eat up the seconds as they pass, and occasionally it blinks in satisfaction.

The constant motion of the chrono phageproduces an eerie, grinding sound, and the hour is tolled by the sound of a chain clanking into a small wooden coffin hidden in the back of the clock.

Below the clock is an quotation in Latin from I John 2: 17: mundus transit et concupiscentia eius (‘the world and its desire are passing away’).

The clock is accurate only once in every five minutes. For the rest of the time, the pendulum may seem to catch or stop, and the lights may lag or, then, race to get ahead. According to John Taylor, this erratic motion reflects the ‘irregularity’ of life.

The Chronophage was conceived as a work of public art, and it reminds viewers in a dramatic way of the inevitable passing of time. Taylor deliberately designed it to be terrifying: ‘Basically I view time as not on your side. He’ll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he’s salivating for the next.’

The grasshopper and the Eagle are curious neighbours in Cambridge. A few steps away from tThe Corpus Christi Clock, across the street on the north side of Bene’t Street and opposite Saint Bene’t’s Church, is the Eagle, the pub where James Watson and Francis Crick often had lunch while they were working on the structure of DNA, and is the first place where Watson publicly presented the double helix model.

Together, the Eagle and the Grasshopper in Cambridge present two very important truths about life. The grasshopper reminds us how we can all let our time be consumed by the small things in life, when we should be more focussed on the more important priorities. And the Eagle reminds us of the soaring heights of beauty in God’s creation, explained not even in the marvellous and wonderful discoveries in science.

The full verse quoted on the clock reads: ‘And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever’ (I John 2: 17).

The Eagle in Bene’t Street, Cambridge ... across the street from the ‘Chronophage’ or ‘Time Eater’ on the Corpus Christi clock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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