The Clock, Icon of Science

Philosophers were always looking for new handles on the universe—new similes, new metaphors, new analogies. Despite their scorn for those who cast the Creator of the Universe in man's image, the theologians never ceased to scrutinize man's own handiwork as their clues to God. Now man was a proud clockmaker, a maker of self-moving machines. Once set in motion, the mechanical clock seemed to tick with a life of its own. Might not the universe itself be a vast clock made and set in motion by the Creator Himself? This interesting possibility, not conceivable until the mechanical clock was on the scene, would be a main way station toward modern physics.

The older view of the movement of physical bodies, as expounded by Aristotle, was that nothing moved unless it was constantly being pushed by some outside force. But by the time the first mechanical clocks were striking in the town belfries of Europe, an interest in predictable regularities was growing—toward a new theory of motion. Now, it was argued, things kept moving because of forces originally imprinted on them (vis impresa) that simply continued to operate. De' Dondi's elegant model of a clockwork universe, recently completed, was already astounding the scholarly world. In the late fourteenth century an influential French popularizer of science, Bishop Nicole d'Oresme (13307-1382), created the unforgettable metaphor: a clockwork universe, God the perfect clockmaker! And "if anyone should make a mechanical clock," Oresme asked, "would he not make all the wheels move as harmoniously as possible?"

This metaphor guided and inspired scientists like the great astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). "My aim," he observed in 1605, "is t 0 show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but rather to a clockwork." And Descartes, too, the philosopher-mathematician, made the clock his prototypical machine. His doctrine of dualism—that mind and body operated independently—was explained in a famous clock metaphor. Suppose there are two clocks, Descartes's Dutch disciple Geulincx suggested, both of which keep perfect time. When one points to the hour, the other always strikes. If you did not know about their machinery and how they were made, you might mistakenly assume that the movements of the one caused the other to strike. This is the way both the mind and the body function. God the Clockmaker created each quite independently of the other, then wound up both of them and set them going so they are in perfect harmony. When I decide to lift my arm, I may think that my mind is acting on my body. But really both move independently, each a part of God's perfectly harmonized clockwork.

This fertile mother of machines was the missing link between man's own efforts to master his physical universe and his awed reverence before his Creator. In the seventeenth century the pioneer Puritan physicist and founder of the Royal Society, Robert Boyle (1627-1691), saw the universe as "a great piece of clock work," and his Catholic contemporary Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) agreed that the universe was just that. The Newtonian universe soon elevated God from a clockmaker to a master engineer and mathematician. Now the universal laws that governed the smallest portable watch also governed the movements of the earth, the sun, and all the planets.


The first icon to replace religous icons in Western culture.

Folksonomies: history science society engineering

/art and entertainment/movies and tv/movies (0.547894)
/science/social science/philosophy (0.523190)
/religion and spirituality (0.428090)

mechanical clock (0.913065 (negative:-0.379378)), famous clock metaphor (0.910015 (neutral:0.000000)), perfectly harmonized clockwork (0.857931 (positive:0.801906)), main way station (0.816240 (neutral:0.000000)), late fourteenth century (0.805099 (neutral:0.000000)), influential French popularizer (0.803805 (neutral:0.000000)), Dutch disciple Geulincx (0.802507 (neutral:0.000000)), Bishop Nicole d'Oresme (0.802400 (positive:0.266754)), soon elevated God (0.792132 (positive:0.763757)), contemporary Sir Kenelm (0.789865 (positive:0.312353)), pioneer Puritan physicist (0.787122 (neutral:0.000000)), vast clock (0.777476 (positive:0.381969)), clock work (0.749701 (positive:0.326802)), clockwork universe (0.741196 (neutral:0.000000)), new analogies (0.700315 (neutral:0.000000)), new metaphors (0.696533 (neutral:0.000000)), unforgettable metaphor (0.694904 (positive:0.592760)), new handles (0.694517 (positive:0.431487)), predictable regularities (0.692887 (negative:-0.616351)), religous icons (0.690757 (neutral:0.000000)), Western culture (0.690660 (neutral:0.000000)), town belfries (0.687089 (neutral:0.000000)), proud clockmaker (0.680517 (positive:0.460310)), mechanical clocks (0.680421 (neutral:0.000000)), new theory (0.679043 (negative:-0.215064)), self-moving machines (0.674732 (negative:-0.277250)), perfect clockmaker (0.673560 (positive:0.508511)), prototypical machine (0.673267 (neutral:0.000000)), Johannes Kepler (0.669441 (neutral:0.000000)), scholarly world (0.669435 (positive:0.555873))

Johannes Kepler:Person (0.724071 (neutral:0.000000)), Descartes:Person (0.689483 (neutral:0.000000)), Oresme:Person (0.647379 (negative:-0.350163)), Bishop Nicole d'Oresme:Person (0.597991 (positive:0.266754)), Aristotle:Person (0.560551 (neutral:0.000000)), Dondi:City (0.556560 (positive:0.623171)), Europe:Continent (0.553993 (neutral:0.000000)), Sir Kenelm:Person (0.553821 (positive:0.312353)), Robert Boyle:Person (0.529518 (positive:0.323053)), Digby:Person (0.521976 (neutral:0.000000)), Royal Society:Organization (0.520520 (neutral:0.000000)), engineer:JobTitle (0.503633 (positive:0.763757)), physicist:JobTitle (0.478094 (neutral:0.000000)), Geulincx:Person (0.457021 (neutral:0.000000)), founder:JobTitle (0.431162 (neutral:0.000000))

Clock (0.978380): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Universe (0.966003): dbpedia | freebase
Time (0.864059): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Clocks (0.864035): dbpedia
Movement (0.798155): dbpedia | freebase | yago
God (0.729045): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Physics (0.718790): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Space (0.681527): dbpedia | freebase

 The discoverers
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Boorstin, Daniel Joseph (1983), The discoverers, Random House Inc, Retrieved on 2013-08-08
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: