Observational Time with John Goodman

John Goodman is an engineer that admires intuition, a reluctant artist who enjoys elegant approximations. His best known creation,
The Annosphere, was recently showcased at the Cambridge Science Festival in Massachusetts, where he lives and works.

John Goodman and the Annosphere

The Annosphere tells time, but more usefully, it presents time. It shows you sunrise and sunset, the start of spring and the winter solstice. It lets you see on your desk what you can’t see in the world: the steady pace of time, the subtle day to day changes in sunlight and shadow, the cycles that run through each year.

The Annosphere is emblematic of what Mr. Goodman calls an intuitive grasp of time – time that is told by instinct, season and cultural benchmark, rather than being parceled out in minutes and seconds. He tells an illustrative story: Once, in a hotel in Europe, he noticed that the shower knob was demarcated in degree readings. He got to musing on the fact that he had no idea, in degrees, how hot he liked his shower. “The shower had degree readings on the knob, but who knows the exact temperature they like their shower? The right way to set a shower is where it’s comfortable, the right way to measure time is the same.”

“Can you wake yourself up at a specific time without an alarm clock?” He adds, “It’s easy!”

Mr. Goodman once told his wife to set her alarm for 8:15, and he would wake her up at 8am. For him, time is just as much an art of observation as it is ticking off minutes and seconds. Through having a grasp on what the room looked like at certain times of day, coupled with knowing things like his own sleep habits and other cues for his sense of timing, he was able, much to his wife’s disbelief, to get her to work on time without the use of the alarm clock.

He makes a note of other intuitive methods for judging time – there is apocryphal story that states the day that farmers let the boars and sows breed, they would notch their fingernails at the point they emerged from their skin. When the notch had grown all the way out, the sow was ready to give birth. Likewise, cultural celebrations such as the lunar new year and mid-autumn festivals encourage people to think about the changing points of the year, and prepare mentally and physically.

After all this explanation of gut feeling for time and representing it in mechanical form, the irony that lies with the construction of the Annosphere is the fact that Mr. Goodman must use, and enjoys using, highly precise machinery to build something whose measurements are, at best, approximate. Sometimes, the machines he uses to build the end result are far more complex than the Annosphere itself. To Goodman, “The practice is a meditation.”

Also meditative is watching the Annosphere perform its calculations, which, says Goodman, is also a part of the process – “Writing down the instructions for a thing is not as easy as seeing the thing go – people should be able to interpret the machine on their own.” Like the Clock Of The Long Now, the Annosphere is an elegant bridge between the natural and the mechanical; a reminder of an inherent human ability that is often overlooked in a world of rush hours, work schedules and carefully boxed out minutes and seconds.

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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