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September 11, 2011

Page: 22/42

Home > 2011 Issues > September 11, 2011

Pendulum: More than its swings
By Dr R Balashankar
Seven Tales of the Pendulum, Gregory L.Baker, Oxford University Press, Pp 227(HB), $44.95

IF you thought pendulum is that simple mechanism in grandfather’s clock, think again. It is a highly useful, scientifically complicated technology used in various applications, ranging from keeping time, to measuring earth to quantum mechanics. In his book Seven Tales of the Pendulum Gregory L Baker says, “...beyond the physics, the pendulum has importance for the historical development of applied science, and as such, has left a significant imprint on human thought and culture.” The book gives the seven different applications of pendulum.

The earliest known manifestation of pendulum is from the Han Dynasty in China (202 BC to AD 220). This was part of the seismometer. The first modern pendulum is associated with Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who made the first pendulum clock.

The story of the use of pendulum is interesting. In its form swinging back and forth it is useless to measure the shape of the earth as it is affected by gravity. “But a different configuration of the pendulum can allow us to probe more deeply into the nature of gravity itself. In this new configuration, the pendulum does not oscillate back and forth in a plane, rather, it oscillates in a twisting motion. This new twisting pendulum is usually called a torsion pendulum.” This played a significant role in the development of fundamental laws of gravity and electricity.

The book also takes a peek at the ‘presence’ of pendulum in horror writing, extensively quoting from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

There are some historic pendulums, in the clock towers and in churches. One such ‘religious pendulum’ is in Santiago de Compostele, a cathedral and pilgrimage destination. One of the most celebrated features of this shrine is “O Botafumeiro, a very large incense burner suspended by a heavy rope from a point 70 feet above the floor of the nave, and swung periodically through a huge arc — about 80 degrees in amplitude. The rapid motion through the air fans the hot incense coals, making copious amount of blue smoke, and the censer itself generates a frightening swooshing sound as it passes through the bottom of its arc.”

There is ample science, to understand the technique, but skipping it, one can read on, to get the real story of the pendulum. There are illustrations and photographs that add to the writing. The author Gregory L Baker has written on pendulum before and has authored and co-authored 60 publications in maths and physics. Reader friendly and educative, this book would compel one to have a second look at the pendulum the next time one crosses it.

(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford ox2 6DP)

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