Simon Blackburn: ‘‘The stresses of the modern world are only just beginning to show’’

The philosopher takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?
The computer has to come rather high on the list. I suppose it’s a closely run thing between the computer and the aeroplane, but computers have made such a difference to life.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?
Probably quantum theory. The general theory of relativity was, I think, in 1915. But those two together should take pride of place. It introduced the field of probabilities as a fundamental fact of the world, instead of hard, “billiard ball” atoms. We are still trying to absorb the full meaning of that.

And sporting event?
I’m the wrong person to answer that. Andy Murray winning Wimbledon – how about that?

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you?
I’m not in the habit of growing lists of stuff, but I think as far as books go, almost certainly A Treatise of Human Nature, first published by David Hume in 1739. That’s the most important philosophical book in my life. Most works since can be seen as footnotes to Hume.

It’s quite difficult to separate out one painting. I keep coming back to small portraits. Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci has always been very moving. There is also a wonderful Titian of a man called Alessandro [Cardinal] Farnese.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past 100 years?
If we are being British, I suppose we would have to say Mrs Thatcher. It’s a pity, but it’s probably true.

And author or playwright?
The playwright I’m not so sure about. Some people might say Harold Pinter but I’m not certain I agree. Perhaps Samuel Beckett. For an author . . . if I’m allowed to include philosophical authors, I would say Ludwig Wittgenstein. He introduced an important voice into the philosophical conversation. He brought pragmatism into the British mainstream, where it had not been before. Pragmatism was thought of as an American aberration.

And artist?
From the past century, one would have to cite Picasso. He changed so many genres of art.

How about someone in business?
I don’t think I know any. Perhaps the guy who invented Google.

And a sportsperson?
Muhammad Ali gave a certain kind of inspiration to a lot of people.

What about a philanthropist?
Are there many left? The funny thing is that some of the great philanthropists were Edwardian robber barons, such as Andrew Carnegie. They spent their lives sucking blood out of the poor, then thought to redeem themselves by giving it all back. In terms of this century, I would name Bill Gates.

What is your favourite speech?
I think the greatest speech of the 20th century is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. The rhetorical power is just amazing.

Do you have a favourite quotation?
Lines I find swimming through my head quite often are:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold . . .

It’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a lamentation on old age. I do feel old sometimes when I wake up in the morning.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next 100 years?
I’m not really sure I envisage any significant change. I would like to see a period of relative stasis, so that people’s obsession with economic progress starts to become less obsessive.

What is your main concern for the future?
We are going to have to learn to do without all the energy that we have been depleting.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
I think Anglo-American philosophy needs to become more practical and Continental philosophy needs to become more analytical. That would be very good for both sides.

What is the most important priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
A return to an understanding of co-operative existence, away from the relentlessly competitive and individualistic ideologies that animate so much discussion these days.

The stresses of the modern world are only just beginning to show themselves. They include a few winners and all sorts of losers: the decline of the middle classes and of employment – and therefore hopelessness.

Hopelessness breeds war and all kinds of social ills – terrorism and so on.

Artwork by Ellie Foreman-Peck

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.