Time’s flying. Or crawling. Or biting.

Time Eater, or Chronophage, clock unveiled by Stephen Hawking in Cambridge yesterday.

See here for a demonstration of how it works.

***

“Conventional clocks with hands are boring,” inventor Dr John Taylor said. “I wanted to make timekeeping interesting.”

“I also wanted to depict that time is a destroyer – once a minute is gone you can’t get it back.”

“That’s why my grasshopper is not a Disney character. He is a ferocious beast that over the seconds has his tongue lolling out, his jaws opening, then on the 59th second he gulps down time.”

***

The clock reminds me of connections I have made between insects and automatons:

Arguably, insects make for particularly convincing automatons, because the oscillation between animate and inanimate is already inherent in their behaviour. The uncanny ability of some species to grow severed body parts back or to survive in segments points to their mechanised nature, and the question whether insects were driven by instinct or by intelligence puzzled entomologists and philosophers particularly since the second half of the nineteenth century.

(See for example Jean-Henri Fabre, Souvenirs entomologiques, and Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution.)

***

The ultimate evidence of the praying mantis’s machine-like existence is the fact that the insect can carry out all of its actions in a decapitated state, as Roger Caillois emphasises in The Praying Mantis: From Biology to Psychoanalysis (1934):

Above and beyond its joined rigidity, which recalls a coat of armor or an automaton, it is a fact that there are very few reactions the mantis cannot perform in a decapitated state – that is, without any center of representation or of voluntary activity. In this condition, it can walk; regain its balance; sever a threatened limb; assume the spectral stance; engage in mating; lay eggs; build an ootheca; and (this is truly frightening) lapse into feigned rigor mortis in the face of danger or when the peripheral nervous system is stimulated. I am deliberately expressing myself in a roundabout way as it is so difficult, I think, both for language to express and for the mind to grasp that the mantis, when dead, should be capable of simulating death.

The attempt to describe the mantis’s ability to feign death in a decapitated state brings Caillois to the edge of reason and threatens to unravel the logic of his argument. At the same time, however, the fact that he struggles to get his head around it and to find words to express the inexpressible, elegantly proves his point: the praying mantis, with its instinct-driven behaviour undermining all reasoning, is a symbol of transgression par excellence.

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