'Clock sympathy' a sign of gravity's pull on our lives


Dr. Gerry Turcotte

December 3, 2012

There is a concept known as clock sympathy that may be apocryphal, though it also has a basis in scientific fact. I first learned of this from a clockmaker who explained that whenever you place clocks together in proximity, and no matter how different their rhythms, they eventually harmonize, so that their pendulums swing in concert. It is a concept that invokes both the laws of magic and the laws of physics.

Over the years the idea has stayed in the back of my mind, until I mentioned it at a recent dinner party, and was surprised at the interest generated. I decided to pursue the scientific evidence for the concept.

What I found was a reference to "odd sympathy." This is the story of a Dutch scientist called Christiaan Huygens, the man who invented the pendulum clock. In 1665 he observed what he called an "odd kind of sympathy" between two timepieces he had built and placed side by side.

What Huygens observed was that irrespective of the initial rhythm of the pendulums, after a time they began to move in concert. Specifically, they achieved perfect synchronism in opposite directions.

The reason behind this was not scientifically explained for another 350 years, and I leave it to others to unpack the specific laws of physics behind this phenomenon.

For me the metaphor remains just as powerful. It is a comment about the effects of influence. It is a statement about God's hand at work through the laws of physics, but also about how such influences transfer into the realm of social justice, education and every day relationships.


Quite simply, we are moved by others to be our best or our worst. We have some say in the environment we inhabit, but it's also true that we cannot always choose our surroundings.

So it is all the more important that we work consciously to reinforce our hearts, our faith, our intellect, because the better we are as people, the stronger the gravitational pull we produce on the individuals and community around us.

Last spring, St. Mary's University College held its end-of-term liturgy, beautifully celebrated by Bishop Frederick Henry. There was a large turnout and magnificent music and singing. The Mass was a celebration of a successful end of studies, and a coming together of people of all faiths to honour the importance of goodness, commitment and friendship.

As I sat there listening to the voices rise in Father Michael J. McGivney Hall – restored through a gift from the Knights of Columbus – I thought of clock sympathy.


I reflected on the powerful influence of wonderful educators on their charges; of the impact of good deeds by our social justice student advocates on wider issues in the world; and on the deep well of faith that resides in so many of us, somehow made more joyful and more resonant through community celebration.

It struck me then – perhaps the way a clock strikes the hour – that there was nothing odd about this at all. As Nicholas of Oremus, bishop of Lisieux, argued in the 14th century, the universe should be understood as a clock designed by God where all the "wheels move as harmoniously as possible." A striking thought indeed.

(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)