At the weekend I spent a bit of time in Oxford, and as I often do I stopped in at the Museum of the History of Science. They’ve got a lovely little exhibition on until the 15th of April, it’s called Time Machines, and it’s all about clocks and the ways we’ve measured time. I was intruiged to discover that the word clock originally referred to a bell – it makes sense if you think about it. The ringing of the bell would be one of the few local measurements of the passing of the day beyond what the natural world was telling you.
Alongside some outstandingly beautiful objects were engaging explanations by ‘The mischievous scholar Nicholas of Oxford (as featured in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale)’ who looked at all of our new timekeeping machinary as only somebody from another time can do. You can see why he thought people were strange when they made mechanical clocks only to stick them in an oven and then a freezer – of course it makes sense when you understand that temperature affects the mechanism so you need to test it before using it in anger.
The final section of the exhibition looks at current advances in ‘short duration physics’, a fascinating area of research that uses tools to measure incredibly short periods of time as a way of studying quantum effects. You can find out more from this podcast.