Space & Innovation

350-Year-Old Pendulum Clock Mystery Solved

Pendulum clocks hanging from the same wall can influence each other and synchronize over time -- and now scientists know why.

The 350-year-old mystery of why pendulum clocks hanging from the same wall can influence each other and synchronize over time may hold even more secrets than previously thought, researchers say.

Solving this mystery could shed light on puzzling aspects of a variety of synchronized behaviors, such as how brain cells work together, the scientists added.

In 1665, the inventor of the pendulum clock, Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens, was lying in bed sick, watching two of his clocks, when he noticed something odd: No matter how the pendulums on these clocks started, they ended up swinging in exactly the opposite direction from each other within about a half-hour. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

12 Eye-Opening Alarm Clocks

For centuries, the cause of this effect was unknown. Solving the puzzle could help shed light on the mysterious phenomenon of synchronization, scientists say.

"The synchronization phenomenon is one of the most pervasive drives in nature," said study lead author Jonatan Peña Ramirez, a dynamicist at the Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education in Ensenada, Mexico. "For example, consider a couple dancing to the rhythm of music, or violinists in an orchestra playing in unison, or a school of fish gracefully swimming."

In a separate study published last year in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists suggested that the explanation for this phenomenon involved sound pulses traveling from clock to clock - for instance, through the wall on which the machines hang. However, Peña and his colleagues now suggest that Huygens' original explanation for this mystery could be the correct one.

The researchers experimented with two complex pendulum clocks known as monumental clocks."To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that Huygens' experiment is reproduced using real monumental pendulum clocks," Peña told Live Science. "Previous studies have used scaled-down versions of pendulum clocks, or commercial and generic clocks."

Mystery of Why Pendulums Swing in Harmony Solved

The scientists placed both clocks on the same wooden table. As they expected, the motion of the clock pendulums synchronized over time.

However, unlike the clocks in Huygens' experiment, the clocks did not swing in opposite directions. Rather, they unexpectedly moved in exactly the same direction. Moreover, while the clocks stayed in sync, they became slower and more inaccurate over time, the scientists said.

To explain these findings, the researchers developed a mathematical model of the clocks, taking into account the flexible nature of the wooden support that both machines rested on. The model suggested that the clocks could make the wooden board vibrate.

Harry Potter Fan Makes Working Weasley Clock

The researchers found that the support connecting the clocks (in this case, the wooden table) could serve as a kind of communication channel between the clocks, which they could use to exchange energy. The rigidity, thickness and mass of this support can influence the way in which the clocks synchronize and how inaccurate they become, the researchers said. [5 of the Most Precise Clocks Ever Made]

Long ago, Huygens suggested that the synchronous behavior of the clocks he observed might be caused by "the imperceptible vibrations of the beam on which they are hanging," Peña said. Huygens "was so brilliant that he gave the correct explanation for his discovery without using a single equation."

These findings suggest that much remains unknown about how coupled pendulum clocks behave, Peña said. "There still are hidden secrets to be revealed, and consequently, further studies of this system are necessary in order to unveil more details about the complex yet intriguing synchronization phenomenon," Peña said.

A better understanding of synchronization could have technological and biological implications. For instance, consider two rotors mounted on an elastic support. "A familiar example of this kind of devices is a washing machine," Peña said. Under certain conditions, the rotors may synchronize to rotate in the same direction, or in opposite directions, he said.

The synchronization of these rotors in opposite directions is highly desirable, because this will reduce or even eliminate the vibrations of the washing machine while its rotors are operating, Peña said. However, synchronization of these rotors in the same direction is not desired at all, because strong vibrations can result, with harmful and undesirable effects, he explained.

"Something similar happens in living organisms," Peña said. "For instance, inside the human body, there are several biological rhythms - respiration, heartbeat and blood perfusion, just to mention a few of them. It has been found that when some of these rhythms synchronize with each other, the energy consumption is minimal; hence, in this case, the onset of synchronization is beneficial. On the other hand, synchronization can also be dangerous or detrimental; it is widely accepted that the process of seizure generation is closely associated with abnormal synchronization of neurons."

The scientists detailed their findings online March 29 in the journal Scientific Reports. The clocks used in the experiments are now in a museum next to monumental clocks factory Relojes Centenario in Zacatlán, Mexico, where the clocks were made.

Original article on Live Science.

The Mysterious Physics of 7 Everyday Things Twisted Physics: 7 Mind-Blowing Findings Top 10 Inventions that Changed the World Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pendulum clocks made by Mexican clock manufacturer Relojes Centenario were used to investigate the mechanisms behind synchronization.

Similar to how the sun, a rooster or clanging bells used to wake us, now we employ all sorts of high-tech solutions for ceasing our slumber. There are literally tons of takes on the alarm clock. Some use technology to wake us gently, while others jolt us out of bed in a panic. What we've compiled here isn't an exhaustive list -- which would be ironic, not to mention taking forever to assemble. For instance, we've already covered those gradually increasing light ones in the past. And you won't see any of the fragrance producing devices here either. We acknowledge those. But we think it's about time to give these twelve unique, creative, truly techie alarm clocks their due.

The (Circadian) Rhythm Method The Alarming Clock. London designer Natalie Duckett is -- as we speak -- putting the final touches on her creatively wooden take on the dual-alarm clock. Rather than simply signaling a time or two to wake up, this elm-based time tracker will alert you when it's a good time to sleep like a log. The idea is to improve your sleep duration and quality through a better evening wind-down ritual. The signal, designed to mimic the sound of a woodpecker, will be created mechanically with a beak (of sorts). All we know is that when this new clock is officially ready, we look forward to being amongst the first to hear about it (based on our pecking order, of course).

Woodwind-Inspired Sophistication Beotime: $410. This multifaceted flute-like device can control the basic operations (power, channel, volume, etc.) of other B & O products. It can activate a sleep timer allowing you to drift off to an external audio source for up to two hours. When you touch or move it, it displays the current time on its little squares, reoriented to whatever direction it's held/placed. And yes, despite its totally tubular aluminum styling and varied functionality, it's an alarm clock. Along with its unique chime, you can also set it to wake you to music, radio or TV. And its motion sensor requires only a soft touch to activate a 10-minute snooze.

Water Treatment The Bedol Water Clock: $29. When you were a kid, perhaps you had one of those mean parents who crassly splashed water on you to wake you up. Well, the Water Clock uses water to wake you up, but in a much less harsh and more ingenious way. Rather than shocking the life into you, it uses the H20 -- in conjunction with its metallic plates -- for power. So you essentially just have a very simple, green, cordless little clock that never needs batteries.

Enough to Wake the Dead ClearSounds SW200 ShakeUp to WakeUp Dual Large Display Alarm Clock: $89.95. The dual-alarm ShakeUp to WakeUp has a singular mission in life: To wake you up any which way it can. Let's start with a pitch-adjustable, multi-tone 87dB alarm in a 520Hz sound wave pattern, capable of waking hibernating bears from eight miles away. It's got bright little built-in LEDs that flash, but you can also plug in your bedside lamp for extra shining power. And why not plug in your telephone as well? Yup, it can make that ring in a special pattern. And just to make sure you don't doze through all that cacophony, it comes with a 12V vibrating pad you can slip under your pillow or mattress pad. Rest assured, as you groggily ease out of your coma, you'll be looking at big, clear digits on the mondo display. Up and at 'em, no excuses!

Old School Look, New School Rock Tick Tock SD/USB/FM Radio: $69.99. From the front, it looks like a retro alarm clock; but further inspection -- and peeking around back -- reveals a variety of new-fangled touches. For instance, those ain't bells on top, they're a pair of 1 1/2-inch, 3 1/2-watt omnidirectional speakers. The Tick Tock's also got an SD card reader, USB input, auxiliary line in and FM radio with up to two dozen presets. (Its sister models come with either an iPod dock or Bluetooth.) In other words, there's no excuse for not plugging in and waking up to your favorite tunes every day!

It Can Fly! Flying Alarm Clock: $19.99. Snooze alarms are a joke. Who hits theirs just once, sneaks in an extra eight to ten magical minutes and then springs out of bed?! Nobody, that's who. That's why the Flying Alarm Clock was invented. In conjunction with the intolerable alarm sounding, a little puddle jumper is propelled up and out of the base. The only thing that'll silence the racket involves you getting your sorry butt out of bed, retrieving the flying top and plunging it back into the base. If you can drift back to sleep after that adventure, you may want to consider changing your profession or moving to a different time zone.

The Pillow Alarm Happillow. Your pillow probably just sits there all white and fluffy and boring. Not Happillow. This brainchild of a group of Ubiquitous Computing students from Chalmers University in Sweden is soft like a regular pillow, but has a built-in digital alarm clock -- complete with an LED display! Just shake the pillow to access the menu. Tilt it forward or backward to turn the alarm on or off, or sideways to scroll through the menu that lets you set the time. The brightness of the LEDs adjusts automatically based on the darkness of the room and shuts off completely from the pressure of your melon. It also has a snore detection setting that will attempt to vibrate you away from sawing wood. The alarm consists of bright flashing lights, vibration and eventually some beeps. To shut off the alarm, just shake the pillow. You can see a video demo of a working prototype on the Happillow blog. The team (idea man Farshid Harandi and business developer Hamed Ordibehesht) told Discovery News that they're working out some of the kinks and working in some improvements in the way of a washable cover and embedded speakers. Eventually, the team believes they can offer this amazing product for under $100. But first they'll need investors. Not sure whether you'd be keen to fund such a high tech pillow? Maybe you should sleep on it...

The Portable Sound System iHome Audio iP49: $159.99. By definition, all clock radios keep time and play music. Admittedly, the iHome iP49 is fairly simple in terms of its clock. But its Bongiovi Acoustics and four neodymium compression drivers produce surprisingly nice, rich, bassy audio. Plus, because this tough speaker dock -- which also features equalizer controls and an auxiliary line in -- is portable, rechargeable and comes with a remote, it's a great system to fold up and take with you. The only downside is that for those times it's out rockin', you may have to dust your nightstand on a more regular basis.

Ready, Aim, Wake! Laser Target Alarm Clock: $24.95. In the same way that the Flying Alarm Clock physically gets you out of bed, the Laser Target Alarm Clock tests your initial mental acuity every day. Until you hit the bullseye with the laser gun, your ears pay the price. So you will quickly gather yourself together, aim and stay on target! And by that time, theoretically you'll be conscious enough to continue on with your day, preferrably not shooting at everything along the way.

You Can Do It! My Wake Up Call: 1 month subscription, $9.95; 6 months, $49.95; 12 months, $99.95. It's like the song says, waking up is hard to do. Or was that breaking up? Either way, we could all use a little extra motivation to pop out of bed in the morning and take on the world. Enter My Wake Up Call. Instead of letting thoughts of dread creep into your head as you lay there in bed, it helps you rise and shine with a can-do attitude about love, wellness, prosperity or self-esteem. It's available as an app, MP3s and on CDs. Hey, who couldn't benefit from a positive 5-minute message to start each day?

The Weather Projector & Charger Time & Wireless Charging Station+: $129. The face of this CES 2012 Innovations Honoree can tell you the current time, alarm time, weather forecast and temperature both indoors and out. It can also project the time and temperature, as well as focus and flip them 180 degrees, onto a wall or ceiling. And as if that weren't enough, this brainy multitasker can inductively charge Qi-enabled devices just by laying them on top of it. A rep from the company told Discovery News that this contemporary clock will be available for purchase from the Oregon Scientific website "likely by late this summer." At least that's the time they're projecting...

Timing is Everything SleepTracker Elite: $149. Sleeptracker watches, which have been around a few years, recently released a new analytics program that both existing and new Sleeptracker customers can download to their Mac or PC. So now, not only will the watch wake you at the most optimal time in your sleep cycle (based on your acceptable parameters), but you can connect it to your computer for all sorts of fancy feedback. Among its many insights, the software will tell you how much you slept based on when you fell asleep and woke up. But it also watches for interrupted sleep moments and light sleep stages, it can factor in a variety of issues that may have affected your sleep and it tracks your overall sleep health over time. READ MORE: Alarm Clock Syncs With Your Sleep Cycle