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Pendulum Clock Synchronisation Mystery Sheds Light on Heart Beating

Unveiling the mystery of two pendulums synchronising could help understand biological rhythmic phenomenons like heart beating and breathing. The paper describing this relationship is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


Why do pendulum clocks placed on the same wall influence each other such that a synchrony between them will be brought about after a certain amount of time? If answered, this mystery might help understand the nature of synchronised behaviours, including those pertaining to the human body, such as the heartbeat, and the cooperation seen among brain cells.

The pendulum clock was invented back in 1665 by Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens. The latter had noticed how the motion of pendulums would ultimately (within 30 minutes) become in exactly the opposite direction of each other, regardless of when each started. He had theorised that inconspicuous vibrations of the structure on which the clocks are hung might be causing the synchronisation.

What really causes this has remained largely unknown. This is why researchers have, time and again, attempted to understand this phenomenon; the team behind the new study even suggests it might have implications in the process of synchronisation in general.

Synchronisation is pervasive in nature, explains lead author Jonatan Peña Ramirez, a dynamicist at the Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education in Ensenada, Mexico; you can find it in mere actions like two people dancing to the music or fish swimming together.

Peña and his team incline to what was put forward by Huygens. They have reproduced the latter’s experiment with real monumental pendulum clocks, explains the researcher in an article to Live Science. They placed two clocks on the same wooden table and watched the movement of the pendulums synchronise with time. However, there was a marked difference between this experiments and Huygens’ in one aspect: instead of the clocks swinging in opposite orientations, their movement was found to be in the same direction. Furthermore, once this happened, the clocks slowed down, and became inaccurate further down the line.

The researchers made a mathematical model of the clocks in an attempt to understand the workings they had previously witnessed. They concluded that the table constituting the base linking the two clocks was the equivalent of a communication channel that was used as a medium to transfer energy. Features of this support system will impact on the synchronisation of the clocks: for instance, their thickness and mass will affect not only how they synchronise but also how inaccurate they become over time.

This seems to support what Huygens had explained decades ago. Also, these findings indicate that much is still unknown about this behaviour, says Peña. Deciphering how this works will have potential biological implications, write the authors. For example, a better understanding of synchronisation could lead to more insight in biological rhythmic processes like breathing, the heart beating, and similar signs found in nature.


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