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Round the Clock(s)

Round the Clock(s)

Space time gets a new spin.

“What time is it?”

Ask this simple question and you’ll get a deliriously un-simple set of answers, courtesy of Timepieces, a new artwork by Katie Paterson on display at the Exploratorium.

The answer you choose to accept—if any—depends on your location in our solar system. It’s almost 5 o’clock on Jupiter, but on Mercury, well, there it’s much later: More like 2,137 o’clock.

And if your next question is “Say what?” then you are right where Scottish artist Paterson wants you to be: Boggling over the breakdown of time’s orderly march that naturally results as you zoom out for the interplanetary long view.

Daylight savings, time zones, the International Date Line—as if there weren’t already enough about time-keeping here on Earth to make you a bit dizzy, the 9 clocks of Paterson’s Timepieces (one for each planet in our solar system, plus the moon) will surely make your head spin.

Yet this stark row of clocks tells a grander story than mere numbers can convey.

Our own familiar 12-hour clock has as its underpinning the 24 hours it takes our spinning Earth to make one full rotation. But other celestial bodies in our solar system rotate at vastly different rates, courtesy of arbitrary amounts of angular momentum imparted just as the solar system was forming.

Jumbo Jupiter whisks around in just under 10 hours, but less-than-mercurial Mercury slogs through 4,223 hours to complete its day—turning so slowly that the day there lasts almost as long as the year, with the strange result that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

Destabilizing our concepts of time, space, distance, and presence via planetary science is a favorite theme for artist Paterson.

In a previous work, As the World Turns, she hacked a turntable playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to rotate in time with the Earth, turning (imperceptibly slowly) at a rate of once every 24 hours, for a total play time of four years.

For E.M.E. (Earth-Moon-Earth), she bounced a Morse-coded radio transmission of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata off of the moon, playing the resulting moon-altered score, pocked with gaps, on a grand piano.

Another piece— Vatnajökull (the sound of)—encouraged viewers to make a phone call to a microphone sunk inside a glacial lake in Iceland. Callers heard the eerie pops, clicks, and fizzing of the melting glacial ice.

Fortunately, there’s no need to make any international—or intergalactic—calls to appreciate the depths of Paterson’s Timepieces. You can find it in the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery at the Exploratorium. Hurry, or don’t: Either way, time’s a-tickin’.

(All photos by Gayle Laird/Exploratorium)

Curious to know your age on other planets?

For more time-warping wonders, check out our How Many Saturdays? app.