Let the great world spin


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I first heard the song “Fireflies,” by Owl City, shortly after my junior year of college. During the refrain, singer Adam Young almost whispers, “I’d like to make myself believe / that planet Earth turns slowly.” Goosebumps prickled along my neck. Yes, I thought, I’ve studied Foucault’s pendulum.

Léon Foucault practiced physics in France during the mid-1800s. During one of his best-known experiments, he hung a pendulum from high up in a building. Imagine drawing a wide circle on the floor, around the pendulum’s bob.1

Pendulum bob and encompassing circle, as viewed from above.

Imagine pulling the bob out to a point above the circle, then releasing the pendulum. The bob will swing back and forth, tracing out a straight line across the circle.

You might expect the bob to keep swinging back and forth along that line, and to do nothing more, forever (or until the pendulum has spent all its energy on pushing air molecules out of its way). After all, the only forces acting on the bob seem to be gravity and the tension in the pendulum’s wire. But the line rotates; its two tips trace out the circle.

How long the tips take to trace the circle depends on your latitude. At the North and South Poles, the tips take one day.

Why does the line rotate? Because the pendulum dangles from a building on the Earth’s surface. As the Earth rotates, so does the building, which pushes the pendulum. You’ve experienced such a pushing if you’ve ridden in a car. Suppose that the car is zipping along at a constant speed, in an unchanging direction, on a smooth road. With your eyes closed, you won’t feel like you’re moving. The only forces you can sense are gravity and the car seat’s preventing you from sinking into the ground (analogous to the wire tension that prevents the pendulum bob from crashing into the floor). If the car turns a bend, it pushes you sidewise in your seat. This push is called a centrifugal force. The pendulum feels a centrifugal force because the Earth’s rotation is an acceleration like the car’s. The pendulum also feels another force—a Coriolis force—because it’s not merely sitting, but moving on the rotating Earth.

We can predict the rotation of Foucault’s pendulum by assuming that the Earth rotates, then calculating the centrifugal and Coriolis forces induced, and then calculating how those forces will influence the pendulum’s motion. The pendulum evidences the Earth’s rotation as nothing else had before debuting in 1851. You can imagine the stir created by the pendulum when Foucault demonstrated it at the Observatoire de Paris and at the Panthéon monument. Copycat pendulums popped up across the world. One ended up next to my college’s physics building, as shown in this video. I reveled in understanding that pendulum’s motion, junior year.

My professor alluded to a grander Foucault pendulum in Paris. It hangs in what sounded like a temple to the Enlightenment—beautiful in form, steeped in history, and rich in scientific significance. I’m a romantic about the Enlightenment; I adore the idea of creating the first large-scale organizational system for knowledge. So I hungered to make a pilgrimage to Paris.

I made the pilgrimage this spring. I was attending a quantum-chaos workshop at the Institut Pascal, an interdisciplinary institute in a suburb of Paris. One quiet Saturday morning, I rode a train into the city center. The city houses a former priory—a gorgeous, 11th-century, white-stone affair of the sort for which I envy European cities. For over 200 years, the former priory has housed the Musée des Arts et Métiers, a museum of industry and technology. In the priory’s chapel hangs Foucault’s pendulum.2

A pendulum of Foucault’s own—the one he exhibited at the Panthéon—used to hang in the chapel. That pendulum broke in 2010; but still, the pendulum swinging today is all but a holy relic of scientific history. Foucault’s pendulum! Demonstrating that the Earth rotates! And in a jewel of a setting—flooded with light from stained-glass windows and surrounded by Gothic arches below a painted ceiling. I flitted around the little chapel like a pollen-happy bee for maybe 15 minutes, watching the pendulum swing, looking at other artifacts of Foucault’s, wending my way around the carved columns.

Almost alone. A handful of visitors trickled in and out. They contrasted with my visit, the previous weekend, to the Louvre. There, I’d witnessed a Disney World–esque line of tourists waiting for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, camera phones held high. Nobody was queueing up in the musée’s chapel. But this was Foucault’s pendulum! Demonstrating that the Earth rotates!

I confess to capitalizing on the lack of visitors to take a photo with Foucault’s pendulum and Foucault’s Pendulum, though.

Shortly before I’d left for Paris, a librarian friend had recommended Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum. It occupied me during many a train ride to or from the center of Paris.

The rest of the museum could model in an advertisement for steampunk. I found automata, models of the steam engines that triggered the Industrial Revolution, and a phonograph of Thomas Edison’s. The gadgets, many formed from brass and dark wood, contrast with the priory’s light-toned majesty. Yet the priory shares its elegance with the inventions, many of which gleam and curve in decorative flutes.&

The grand finale at the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

I tore myself away from the Musée des Arts et Métiers after several hours. I returned home a week later and heard the song “Fireflies” again not long afterward. The goosebumps returned worse. Thanks to Foucault, I can make myself believe that planet Earth turns.

With thanks to Kristina Lynch for tolerating my many, many, many questions throughout her classical-mechanics course.

This story’s title refers to a translation of Goethe’s Faust. In the translation, the demon Mephistopheles tells the title character, “You let the great world spin and riot; / we’ll nest contented in our quiet” (to within punctuational and other minor errors, as I no longer have the text with me). A prize-winning 2009 novel is called Let the Great World Spin; I’ve long wondered whether Faust inspired its title.

1Why isn’t the bottom of the pendulum called the alice?

2After visiting the musée, I learned that my classical-mechanics professor had been referring to the Foucault pendulum that hangs in the Panthéon, rather than to the pendulum in the musée. The musée still contains the pendulum used by Foucault in 1851, whereas the Panthéon has only a copy, so I’m content. Still, I wouldn’t mind making a pilgrimage to the Panthéon. Let me know if more thermodynamic workshops take place in Paris!