Watching time

A guided tour through time with Switzerland's philosophers and scientists

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22 March 2013

In a country where there is a watch shop on every corner, it's difficult not to think about time. Some of the world's greatest thinkers spent at least part of their lives in Switzerland and so could not help being influenced by the mountains, the people, and what the people did. Which included making watches.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712, into a watchmaking family, with his father, uncles, and previous generations, all involved in the trade. The Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva has six watches made by Rousseau's ancestors, including pieces with the intricate enamel miniatures which were part of the fashion at the time. Rousseau grew up in a district of Geneva packed with silversmiths, engravers and other watchmakers, and he was deeply influenced by the crafts that he saw. But his thought, which gave rise to aphorisms such as 'Men is born free, and everywhere he is in chains' and went on to inspire the French Revolution and Karl Marx, caused him to be chased out of Geneva and made him heartily disliked by the ruling classes all over Europe. His novel 'Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse,' 1761, included rhapsodic descriptions of the Swiss landscapes. It struck a chord in the public and helped spark the subsequent 19th-century craze for Alpine scenery. (Below, a watch by the Rousseau family at the Patek Philippe Museum, Geneva).

There is no doubt that Nietzsche was fascinated by Switzerland and its scenic beauty. He was professor at the University of Basel from 1869 to 1879, and thereafter spent a lot of time at Sils Maria, near Silvaplana and St. Moritz. During a walk in the forest on the shores of Lake Silvaplana, he saw a massive pyramidal block of stone, which set him thinking about time and how it relates to man's lives. The result was the concept of eternal recurrence, developed in Thus Spake Zarathustra: time is linear, but the entire universe repeats over and over, so that what you and I are doing right now in this moment will, one day, aeons in the future, be repeated in exactly the same way. "This life as you now live it (...) you will have to live once again and innumerable times again (...) even this spider and this moonlight between the trees (...) The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again and you with it, speck of dust!" (Below, the Nietzsche Stone on lake Silvaplana in winter).

Nietzsche also said, in the same vein, "The future influences the present just as much as the past." He was anticipating the greatest revolution in the concept of time, that achieved by Albert Einstein. He was the first person to realize that time is not absolute, but simply a fourth dimension, in addition to the three dimensions of space. "The only reason for time," he said, "is so that everything doesn't happen at once." Each of us has our own personal time, which is similar to that of everyone else only because we are moving slowly. If you managed to accelerate to close to the speed of light, time would pass more slowly for you than for the rest of us here on earth. Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, and became a Swiss citizen in 1901. He worked at the Patent Office in Bern from 1903 to 1909, and it is likely that the inventions he saw there – who knows how many watch innovations he had to review – influenced his studies, that would eventually become the theory of Special Relativity in 1905. (Below, photo of the Einstein Museum in Bern).

More romantically, there is an astronomical clock in Bern called the Zytglogge, one of the oldest town clocks in Switzerland: its mechanism dates back to 1530. Amongst the various automata, there is an astronomical clock beneath the main face which shows time, day of the week, date, month, zodiac and phases of the moon. The story goes that Einstein, who lived quite close, observed the buses driving around the tower, and wondered what would happen to them if they were going at the speed of light.

Watchmakers are often philosophers and scientists themselves: after all, the stuff that they are measuring – time – is still one of the most puzzling areas of study. Why, if time is a bit like space, can we only go in one direction? A conversation that I had with Michel Parmigiani at the SIHH watch fair in Geneva showed that this brilliant watchmaker is entirely at home in the realm of philosophy. "You see the curve of the lugs? It is a curve generated by the Fibonacci sequence, one of the fundamental types of harmony in nature that was studied by Luca Pacioli during the Renaissance. It creates a certain balance and proportion. I apply the same sort of study to all the components, such as the different lengths of the hands, the progressive variation in the widths of the Côtes de Genève decoration, everything! This sort of study brings us closer to the proportions of nature: a snowflake crystallizes according to these rules, and the Romanesco broccolo is constructed according to a logarithmic, fractal spiral generated by the Fibonacci sequence." (Below, Michel Parmigiani, Parmigiani Fleurier, sketching a Fibonacci spiral at SIHH, Geneva, January 2013. Photo courtesy of Maryline De Cesare).

Below, broccolo romanesco, with its fractal spiral structure based on Fibonacci-sequence-generated spirals (photo courtesy Sewtrashy/flickr.com)

If you would like to try to find your own philosophical inspiration in the Swiss landscape, you could venture out on the Muottas Muragl Philosophers' Trail, with plaques on a scenic hiking route (seven kilometres, two hours) providing quotes from Socrates, Nietzsche, Sartre and ohers, while overlooking the Engadin lakes near St. Moritz. Take the train to Punt Muragl and then the mountain railway to Muottas Muragl. The hike route is open from 8 June to 20 October 2013, and then in winter, from just before Christmas to early April, when it is one of the few winter hiking trails accessible to all, without the need for special gear. It is freshly prepared every day, so that it is always ready for you. Because "Only the ideas that we actually live are of any value" (Herman Hesse). Rousseau would have loved it.

 Useful information

Patek Philippe Museum
Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers 7
CH-1205 Geneva
Tel. +41 (0)22 8070 910
Admission CHF 10
Open Tues-Fri 2.00 p.m.-6.00 p.m., Sat 10.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m.

Nietzsche-Haus
Via da Marias 67
CH-7514 Sils Maria
Tel. +41 (0)81 8265 369
The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 3.00 to 6.00 p.m., from mid-June to mid-October and from the end of December to mid-April.
Admission CHF 8.
Every Wednesday from 11.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., there is a tour of the exhibition (in German, CHF 15, incl. admission price). Special guided tours (for groups of 6 or more people) can also be arranged (in English, German, Italian, French).

Einstein-Haus
Kramgasse 49
Postfach 638
CH-3000 Bern
Open every day, 10.00 a.m.-5.00 p.m. Closed on 31 March, 19 May, and for the whole of January 2014.
Admission CHF 6