A lunar-tick idea for London 2012

It may be visually striking, but the ‘lunar clock’ to be built for the Olympics is a monument to backwardness.

Steve Gibson

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Topics Science & Tech

Scientists and artists are joining forces to build a giant ‘lunar clock’ in London’s East India Docks in time for the 2012 Olympics. The question is: what’s a lunar clock – and why on Earth would anyone want to build one?

The clock – called Aluna – will consist of three concentric rings. The biggest ring will show the phases of the moon as it waxes and wanes; the central ring will indicate the lunar day by tracking the light of the moon as it moves around the Earth; and the innermost ring will track the ‘pull’ of the moon by responding to the ebb and flow of the tide in the Thames. Judging from the drawings of the sculpture it looks like a modern, ingenious and beautiful work of art that is linked to scientific principles (1).

Yet in examining more closely the rationale behind the work, it becomes clear that Aluna is not a celebration of the modern, or a hopeful statement about the future. Rather, it represents a longing for a mythical past, where the world was an easier and calmer place to be.

Aluna is an indigenous Kogi word from Colombia for ‘memory’ and ‘possibility’. The artists involved in the project have said that the sculpture celebrates being ‘in tune with the planet’s rhythms and living in harmony with our planet’. The scientific contributors to the project seem to share this outlook, too.

David Rooney, curator of time at London’s Science Museum, told the BBC that people have become ‘completely besotted with clocks and watches’, adding: ‘Isn’t it about time that we looked up and out a little bit to those natural time cycles of this spinning rock underneath that Moon we all see?’ He continued: ‘It’s these time cycles that we human beings are wired to – the patterns of day and night.’ Another scientist revealed that he does not wear a watch, but judges the time by light and darkness.

The Aluna project is about connecting people living in a technologically-advanced age with Nature. The Aluna designers have said that they want to create an iconic structure for London to match Big Ben, but one that will demonstrate a more ‘natural’ way of marking time.

As a sculpture, Aluna is impressive, and in tying in the construction of this high-profile piece of public art with the Olympics, the people behind the project have a unique opportunity to send out a strong message to the world. Regrettably, what London will be celebrating through Aluna is a retrograde, almost anti-scientific worldview.

Aluna is more 1712 than 2012. Ironically, 300 years ago John Harrison was just beginning a 40-year struggle to invent and manufacture a timepiece that would maintain accurate time at sea so that, in turn, accurate longitude and position might always be determined. It is Harrison’s world-changing piece of scientific research that we should celebrate rather than an antiquated form of timepiece – as beautiful as it may be – that will not actually help you tell the time.

It is also ironic that Aluna should be placed in East India Dock, an area from which ships used to depart for exploration and trading missions across world. Those who, like Aluna’s creators, yearn for a mythical past where humans were more ‘in tune with nature’ also typically advocate a kind of stay-at-home society in the name of saving Mother Earth.

All in all, the Aluna concept is antithetical to the motto of the Olympic games: citius, altius, fortius, Latin for ‘swifter, higher, stronger’. Instead, it seems to say, ‘slow down, that’s high enough, don’t break anything’.

This project is an affront to all the fine scientific minds and inventors, like Harrison, that Britain has produced. What would happen if we pursued this outlook in other areas? Why have those flash Javelin trains that will whisk tourists from St Pancras station to the Games in 2012 when we can revert to Richard Trevithick’s pre-Victorian steam locomotive? And perhaps the kind of communication enabled through Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web could be replaced by hand-delivered messages in the style of the 1870s cycling ‘telegraph boys’?

It could be that we have become so accustomed to the benefits of modernity that we trivialise them. Yet technology is only one side of the human story.

Technological development, whether by design or serendipity, is intrinsically linked to ideas. For example, Newton’s ground-breaking observation and articulation of the phenomenon of gravity in the seventeenth century inspired Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century. Newton’s ideas showed that human beings might, to a very great degree, become architects of their own destiny by understanding and then mastering natural effects.

A landmark event in 1712 was the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, arguably the ‘architect’ of two modernising revolutions that began the crystallisation of ideology into reality by his century’s end. At that time, philosophy readily engaged with questions that were difficult then and remain difficult today: ‘Why are we?’, ‘What are we for?’, ‘Where are we going?’ These ideas chimed with invention, and indirectly if not directly, instigated ideological change.

This twin-track pursuit of knowledge – science and metaphysics – can surely be associated with progress, the transformation of the human condition. Science has traditionally chased down the how, while metaphysics has addressed the why – and they have done so hand-in-hand. Their collaborative goal was to fill the gap between what is and what ought to be for humanity. Today, regrettably, many in the ‘why’ team seem content to retrace their steps back along the safe and well-trodden path, rather than inch forward along the foggy route that lies ahead.

So, to conceive of progress in purely technological terms seems, intuitively, incomplete. You have to have ideas before you can begin to direct scientific invention or incorporate serendipitous discovery. You need some notion of where you want to go and why. The message of the lunar clock seems to be that there’s no point in even trying to come up with new and inspiring answers. We deserve something more forward-looking.

The artist’s drawings of Aluna are mesmerising, but as a statement of intent it is turning back the clock. Just as some contemporary philosophers argued for the End of History as we knew it back in 1989, they simultaneously failed to recognise that true Enlightenment values are about a continual struggle for an optimal rather than a utopian society, underpinned by a hopeful humanist ideology rather than a negative misanthropic one.

Worse, this ‘lunar’ intent seems entirely consistent with a contemporary suffocating malaise: disdain for progress and humanity, distrust of liberating technology, and defeatism instead of purposefulness. That the lunar clock should be envisaged as an iconic timepiece of equivalent stature to Big Ben is simply dispiriting.

If we do have to construct some form of worship to the past and thereby fall into the trap of admitting a sleepy poverty of aspiration in the present for the future, then let us at least create a giant-size John Harrison clock to commemorate someone who understood the importance of mastering time and devoted the best part of a lifetime to doing so.

Hopefully, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, will favour something more reckless, audacious, and heroic – in keeping with the spirit of the Olympic Games. But, more importantly, something in keeping with his namesake Samuel’s warning that ‘when a man is tired of London he is tired of life’.

Finally, perhaps most importantly for a clock, it might be quite useful if we could use it to tell the time.

Steve Gibson lectures on risk and resilience at Cranfield University.

Previously on spiked

Martyn Perks hated the 2012 logo. Rob Lyons argued that the 2012 Olympic games should be about sport not sustainability. Manifesto Club members told Boris Johnson what kind of city they want London to be. Josie Appleton looked at what was the return of ‘statuemania’. Or read on at spiked-issue Arts and entertainment.

(1) Lunar clock to be built for 2012, BBC News, 1 September 2009

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