Journey into Science

St Mary Redcliffe Chaotic Pendulum

The St Mary Redcliffe Chaotic Pendulum is now a popular permanent feature of the fifteenth century north transept of the church. This chaotic device, driven by a flow of recycled water, is unique and is to our knowledge not on display anywhere else. It runs continuously and is an extremely beautiful, non threatening icon of our modern understanding of the world. It fits well into its medieval setting and is as much a fascination for young children as it is for professors of physics. Some describe it as mesmeric and healing, others that it contains a deep message about our world which we must ponder; university students are directed to it as part of their studies on chaos.

Chaotic Pendulum in the north trancept of St Mary Redcliffe Church The Chaotic Pendulum was launched on Saturday, 25th October 1997, by Professor Sir Brian Pippard FRS, former Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge University, who had the original idea for this chaotic device and who is advisor to the project, by Mr Robert Knight, who constructed the Pendulum, and by Dr Eric Albone, who had the vision to bring it to the church. The Launch, which attracted a capacity, very diverse and very enthusiastic audience, incorporated two "Reflections on Chaos" by Professor Sir Michael Berry FRS, University of Bristol and the Reverend Tony Whatmough, Vicar of St Mary Redcliffe.

Designed and constructed by Mr Rob Knight (Op-Tricks, Bristol), the pendulum was generously sponsored by Bristol Water plc.

The pendulum is a deceptively simple device which obeys very simple physical laws, yet is unpredictable in its behaviour. The following text beside the pendulum encapsulates its significance.

  • Water, which is recycled, slowly flows into the centre of the cross beam, which tips to let it out.
  • But which way will it tip? What is remarkable is that with all the science in the world, no one can predict exactly how it will be moving a minute from now.
  • This is the way the world is. In this simple machine, you are looking at a new frontier in our understanding of the world. Scientists call it chaos.
  • Some people look to science for certainties on which to base their lives. Increasingly we realise our knowledge can never provide certainty, even for this simple machine. The world is a more wonderful and a more surprising place than we could have imagined.

After the launch, a number of people sent in comments. The following gives the flavour of the contributions:

I found this a very exciting and healing event. This "Chaotic Pendulum" is so beautiful in itself. By accident?, impulse?, I wandered into Mary Redcliffe on a walk back from Temple Meads on Thursday (before the event) and found the Pendulum, and the leaflet of this event was thrust into my hands. On Saturday afternoon by accident? I met a friend shopping in Clifton. We had tea together. I enthused about the Pendulum and she had nothing better to do on Saturday evening... made it possible for us both to come (I don't drive). So all those beautifully random events brought us to the Happening. I love the concept that no longer are we stuck with the idea of science or maths being in one separate box (made of concrete) and religion or spiritual wisdom in another box equally set in concrete. This is real liberation and creativity can thence ensue. More please, and thank all concerned for this one.

More recently poet Annemarie Austin quite independently contributed her own thoughts in the form of the following poem:

Annemarie Austin, 1998

There's the sense of a jewel, a plaything

(the snowstorm ornament, where we
take up the glass sphere like gods,
blizzard out the little house and fir trees,
then rest on the white seventh day)

in the water spilling from a silver tube.

The crescendo of the demonstrated organ
just ended, a small wave crashes,
the pendulum tube tilts its weight of drops
one way into that curved steel channel
mounted on the wooden cross.

Strange crucifixion, strange church toy,
chaotic pendulum on the transept wall,
unpredictably tipping to left or right
a variable trickle for looping up again

Eyeline through the tunnel of a breaking
comber, the circuit of repetition that's
established to be denied and holds
not-repetition in the hollow of its hand.

A god reverses Genesis: out of the map
of ordered roads and buildings this
head of water, chaos essentialised.

ANNEMARIE AUSTIN has published three collections of poetry. Her first, The Weather Coming (Taxus 1987), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and included the poem "Nantucket Island Wife" for which she won the Cheltenham Festival poetry prize in 1980. Her other two volumes, On the Border (1993) and The Flaying of Marsyas (1995), were published by Bloodaxe and a fourth collection, Door upon Door, is due from the same publisher at the end of 1998. Her work is included in a number of anthologies, including Sixty Women Poets (Bloodaxe 1993).
Annemarie Austin works as a teacher of literature in a further education college. In 1998 she taught the poetry module of the Certificate in Creative writing at Bristol University.

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© Clifton Scientific Trust, 1999